Short Hearts

Despite what many of us think, tall stature is not synonymous with health. Although anthropometric historians like Robert Fogel and John Komlos stress that the reasons why we are so tall are the result of better health, this doesn’t mean that being tall itself is healthy. There’s a crucial difference between cause and effect.

A look at cardiovascular heart disease (CHD) shows the complexity of the issue. Although there are many western studies showing a negative correlation between height and CHD, these correlations do not prove causation. On the contrary, when shorter people are compared to taller people, a number of biological mechanisms evolve favouring shorter people. Short people have a higher heart pumping efficiency because the hearts of shorter people are scaled to their body weight. Thus, they have to pump an amount of blood in proportion to their body volume. Shorter people’s hearts do not have to pump blood as high as the hearts of taller people. In accordance with scaling laws taller people’s hearts have to work harder; a 10% taller person of the same body proportions as a shorter person has to pump 33% more blood 10% farther. Yet, the heart’s muscle strength is only 21% greater thus relatively weaker. Other advantages to being short include lower atrial fibrillation, lower DNA damage, lower risk of thrombus, lower left ventricular hypertrophy and superior blood parameters.

The causes of increased heart disease among shorter people in the developed world are therefor not related to height but to such things as lower income, excessive weight, poor diet, lifestyle factors, childhood illness and poor environmental conditions. In fact, perhaps short stature of these people is a natural survival mechanism to help the heart deal with poor conditions. If they’d grow taller despite these conditions they’d die a lot sooner. The findings of an Indian paper indicate that shorter height appears to be an advantage for avoiding CHD under traditional lifestyles. However, short people following a Western diet and poor health habits are at increased risk due to high fat, calorie diets and excessive weight. Not surprisingly poor Western lifestyle at the moment favours the tall.


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  1. The opinion that we have grown healthier during the industrial revolution has many flaws. There’s a big conflict between what historians think and what today’s nutrition and health experts say. For example, our longer life expectancy and greater height are often held up to demonstrate our greater health. Nothing could be further from the truth. For example, the World Cancer Research Fund report of 2007 stated that as a result of the industrial revolution, we have grown taller and heavier and chronic disease has increased in parallel with this growth. (The report covers many health topics and is based on evaluation of 7000 scientific and medical papers and reports.)

    If we look at the developed world, the populations with the highest life expectancy are not the tallest. Andorra, Macao, Japan, San Marino, Singapore and Hong Kong average 3.5 from the top ranking. The tallest europeans are healthy people (Scandinavians, Germans and Dutch) but rank about 26th from the top. In 1960, when the Dutch were shorter, they ranked second from the top in life expectancy. Now they are the tallest country in the world and rank 21.

    A report from John Hopkins stated that 50% of Americans over 65 years of age take 5 or more medications a day. In addition, 25% take 10-20 medications a day. Is this a sign of good health?

    In 1990, a 75-year old American male could expect to live another 10 years. However, in 1900, a 75-year old male could expect to live another 8.5 years.
    This is striking because, medical progress, sanitation, and drug development between, 1900 and 1990 has been extraordinary. Yet, we only gained 1.5 years in life expectancy. I’m not saying that people in the 1900s were exceptionally healthy. After all they did hard work for 60 to 70 hours a week and didn’t know much about nutrition and keeping healthy. However, if we took the years added during the last 100 years due to modern medicine out of the equation, it appears to me that a 75 year old in 1900 had a longer life expectancy than one in 1999. In summary, the extraordinary life expectancy jump between 1900 and today is due to sharp reductions in infant morality, maternal mortality, and adult mortality from injuries and health problems. However, I do believe that people today that eat a plant-based diet, exercise and keep their weight down can derive many longevity benefits along with the help of modern medicine. A side note: The previously mentioned 2007 report recommended keeping one’s body mass index as low as possible within the normal range of 18.5 and 24.99. How many of us have a BMI of 21 to 23, which is what they see as a realistic goal?

    A recent Gallup poll of US workers found that 86% had a chronic health problem (cancer, heart problems, diabetes, high blood pressue) or were obese. This poll included young people as well.

    During the 20th century, numerous studies found many populations in the developing world to be free of chronic diseases common in the West. This includes people over 60 years of age (Eaton). Unfortunately, the developing world is no longer free of obesity and chronic diseases of the West because of dietary and life style changes. For example, S. Koreans have seen a substantial increase in height along with a rise of coronary heart disease, diabetes, and cancer by 1000 to 2000% since the 1960s. Bavdakar also reported that modern day India is experiencing an epidemic of heart disease and diabetes among young and middle aged Indians. Greece used to be a model of low coronary heart disease in the 1960s but is now experiencing an alarming increase.

    I recently read about the Chinese living in a place called Bama. They are noted for their health and longevity in spite of being from the industrialized world. They are isolated from other parts of China and consume home grown foods that are mainly plant-based. Their protein intake is relatively low and they are small people.

    My key point is that because our average life expectancy at birth has jumped
    by about 25 years, it does not mean we are healthy and physically fit. Look at the facts.


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