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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 December 2006, 00:13 GMT
Height loss link to heart disease
Elderly man
Height loss in old age is associated with increased risk of death
It's common knowledge that as we get older we get shorter.

But UK researchers have now found that men who lose 3cm or more of height as they age have an increased risk of heart attack and death.

The study of 4,200 men published in Archives of Internal Medicine took into account other risk factors for heart disease and poor health.

But those who lost 3cm in height were 64% more likely to die than those who lost less than 1cm.

The study was part of the British Regional Heart Study, which enrolled men between 1978 and 1980 and then followed them up 20 years later when they were in their 60s and 70s.

It's been well established that shortness is associated with cardiovascular disease so we were interested to see whether height loss itself could influence mortality
Dr Goya Wannamethee

Over the 20-year period the men lost an average of 1.67cm of height.

But 1,400 of the men lost more than 2cm.

Many of the additional deaths in men who had lost height were due to cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease or other non-cancer diseases.

Height loss was associated with a 42% increased risk of coronary events such as heart attacks, even in men who had no history of cardiovascular disease.

Unknown mechanism

It is as yet unclear why height loss may increase the risk of death and heart attacks, although osteoporosis - a disease characterised by loss of bone mass - was already known to increase the risk of death.

But study leader Dr Goya Wannamethee, reader in epidemiology at the Royal Free and University College Medical School in London, said osteoporosis was associated with more severe height loss - generally 6cm.

"It's been well established that shortness is associated with cardiovascular disease, so we were interested to see whether height loss itself could influence mortality," she said.

"It's another indicator of poor health," she concluded. "Even fairly benign height loss."

Loss of muscle mass could explain some height loss and Dr Goya recommended men and women stay as active as possible into old age.

There could also be an underlying mechanism that contributes to both bone loss and height loss and coronary heart disease and other diseases, the researchers explained.

June Davison, cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said: "This study was set up to help us understand why coronary heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke rates vary considerably across the UK.

"The results of this study are interesting. We don't know why height loss seems to be linked with an increased risk of CHD.

"However, it gives us an interesting starting point that could be explored with further research, helping us to identify those at greatest risk."

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