Short people live longer, according to the findings of the Honolulu Heart Study, now in its 50th year of an ongoing longevity study of ethnic Japanese people living in Hawaii. In a finding that will not be good news for the “longevity” industry, it now appears that the most important factor figuring into living longer is how tall a person is, rather than any of the lifestyle changes touted as life-extending elixirs by nostrum salesmen. While diet, exercise, mega-vitamin therapy, abstention from drugs,d alcohol, tobacco, red meat, and white bread, meditation, household pets, and a good, healthy sex life may all be well and good when it comes to improving quality of life, it now appears increasingly likely that the single most important variable in achieving a long life is in the genes.
The culprit, when it comes to human longevity, is apparently a gene called Fox03, which appears to limit the height to which an individual grows. Based upon a 50 year, longitudinal study that began with 8,000 American men of Japanese origin in 1965, the findings appear to indicate that men who are less than five feet two inches in height live longer than taller men do. The Honolulu Heart Study was originally suggested by an observation made in 1950 by bio-statistician Tavia Gordon, who noticed that while Japanese men living in the United States had the same overall mortality rates as Japanese men living in Japan, the incidence of heart disease was “drastically” lower among residents of Japan.
The widely accepted belief that the difference in longevity between short people and tall ones was due to the differences between Japanese and American diets, with far less red meat, fats, and processed foods, and much more fish and vegetables in Japanese cuisine, has now been overshadowed by the finding that there is a statistical correlation between height and longevity. Scientists believe that, since taller people must build and replace more body cells during their lifetimes to maintain their bodies, the increased demands for regeneration of cells places a toll upon the body’s ability to regenerate. Height, or the lack of it, may also have an effect upon cancer rates, another reason short people should be grateful for being short.
A 2013 study of 20,000 pre-menopausal women by the Women’s Health Initiative documented that, for every ten centimeters (4 inches) of height, a woman’s risk of developing a broad range of cancers increases by an average of 13 percent. A 2011 British study confirmed these findings, with an average risk increase of 16 percent for each ten centimeter increment in height. Once again, the culprit blamed for the cancer incidence appears to be the fact that taller people have to replicate more body cells throughout their lives, giving cancer mutations more opportunities to flourish.
On the basis of the research, it now appears that the incidence of both cardiovascular and cancer issues are linked to height in both men and women. The findings also indicate a correlation between height, as opposed to weight, and fasting insulin levels, an indicator for diabetes.
If there is a monkey wrench in these research findings, it may be that people living in Japan are getting taller. As far back as 1969, there have been reports that the increasing height of the Japanese people might correlate with the Americanization of the Japanese diet, which seems to contradict a direct causal link between the Fox03 gene and longevity predicted by height. The counter-argument may be that taller people who eat a Japanese style diet will end up with more cancers and heart disease than shorter men on the same diet, but only time will be able to able to substantiate that finding. Stay tuned for another 95 years because the next iteration of this research project, if it were to continue, will not be available until 2109.
Ultimately, there is both good news and bad news in these findings. The bad news is that it might not be able to do anything to increase longevity, after all, because it all depends upon an individual’s genes. The good news is that Baby Boomers can cut back on those expensive longevity supplements because they may not be doing them any good. It used to be that people said, “Don’t blame me because I’m short.” Now, they may soon be saying, “It’s not my fault that I’m too tall.”
The members of the Honolulu Heart Study were born no later than 1919. Today, there are still 250 men left in this cohort and, apparently, none of them have to shop at big and tall mens’ clothing stores. Despite previous prejudices to the contrary, smaller now appears to be better. On the basis of these findings, Randy Newman may have to revise the lyrics to his class song, “Short People,” which begs the question, “If smaller people live longer, does that mean they are having more fun, or are they living longer, but enjoying it less?”
By Alan M. Milner
Look for me on Twitter:@alanmilner