In the never-ending pursuit for the key to longevity, some scientists in the Netherlands turned their inquiring gaze to body size, height and weight. Can these metrics help predict how long we’ll live?
The Dutch may have a special interest in the subject, as they’re the tallest people on earth (on average, of course.)
Here’s what the researchers found. . .
Some of the findings of this large study are to be expected, while others come as a surprise. Case in point is that women may be more likely to reach 90 years of age if they’re taller.
But when it comes to men, height may not confer an advantage. However, there are plenty of caveats to these statements, so hold on for the full explanation.
The scientists who conducted this study hail from Maastricht University and published their results in the BMJ Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.1 Using data from the Netherlands Cohort Study of men and women aged 55 to 69, they looked at the association between height, body mass index (BMI), and exercise.
Previous research has explored the link between body mass index (BMI), physical activity, and longevity. But the lion’s share of these studies combined both sexes, or looked exclusively at men.
This study is different and here’s why…
In 1986, some 7,807 participants (3,646 mean and 4,161 women between 68 and 70) provided information on their current height, weight and exercise habits, and their height and weight when they were 20 years old.
Then they answered a myriad of questions about their leisure time physical activities, including gardening, dog walking, etc.
These folks were then monitored until death or the age of 90, whichever came first.
The Surprising Findings
First of all, some 433 men (16.7%) and 944 women (34.4%) lived to the age of 90.
But here’s the interesting part: women who were still alive at 90 tended to be taller and had weighed less at the beginning of the study — and had gained less weight since the age of 20 — than their shorter, heavier counterparts.
The researchers discovered women who were over 5 foot 9 inches in height were 31% more likely to reach the 90-year threshold than women who were 5 foot 3 inches or shorter.
No such associations were seen among men.
Researchers speculate that the height/longevity relationship may be due to shrinkage, which is more common among women. Those who were taller at the start of the study might have experienced less shrinkage and change in BMI.
Exploring the Size and Physical Activity Link
Lead author Lloyd Brandts discussed the main findings of the study in an interview.2 He pointed out that physical activity was associated with an increased chance of reaching the age of 90 years in both men and women.
“However, in women we saw an increasing chance of reaching 90 years with up to 60 minutes of physical activity a day,” he states, adding that their chances of reaching old age didn’t increase with activity levels exceeding 60 minutes.
“In men,” he explains, “it seems the more time they spend physically active every day, the better their chances are for reaching 90 years.”
He cautions that the findings are based on an observational study, and therefore cannot establish cause. Brandts suggests that a low level of physical activity might also be an indicator of deteriorating health, which in turn leads to an earlier death.
There are plenty of gray areas in this study. For instance, the study is limited because it depended on the participants to self-report. And we all know that folks aren’t always 100 percent trustworthy when answering questions about themselves.
Still, the study was large, and the participants were all about the same age, and I believe these factors strengthen the overall results. It seems likely the association between body size and a long lifespan is different for men and women.
However, my main takeaway is that exercise is a key component to longevity. Move as much as you can, whether it’s a walk around the park, a day gardening or even puttering around the house with your latest DIY project.