Height loss is considered a normal part of aging; nothing to be concerned about. But a rapid decline in stature is certainly not normal. In fact, it’s been shown to increase your risk of death.
Even so, height loss is still a surprisingly neglected medical issue. A new study is aiming to change that…
Adult height remains stable up to the age of 50, but then starts a slow decline that accelerates after age 70. Doctors say this height loss is due to shrinkage of vertebral discs, spinal compression fractures, and changes in posture. And women are at greater risk, losing more height with aging on average than men.
Greater Height Loss Equals Greater Risk of Death
To date there have been four studies – half of which were in men only – investigating how loss of height affects overall mortality risk. All four of these studies found that the more height you lose, the greater your risk of death. Two of these studies also found that premature death was due to cardiovascular disease (CVD).
The limited literature in this area encouraged researchers at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, to carry out their own study.
They aimed to find out whether height loss in middle-aged women predicts overall mortality, and death due to cardiovascular disease specifically. For their study they analyzed data from two existing long-term trials that included 1,147 women from Sweden and another 1,259 from Denmark. All were born between 1908 and 1952 and were mostly aged between 38 and 52 when the study began.
Researchers measured height at enrollment and again ten to 13 years later. The average height loss was 0.8 centimeters, but ranged from zero to an astonishing 14 centimeters (5½ inches) in one woman.
Researchers monitored the women for an additional 17 to 19 years during which they documented the causes of death among those who died over that period. The team found that the primary cause of death was cardiovascular disease, claiming157 lives, including 37 cases of stroke. Another 362 cases were due to other causes unrelated to heart trouble.
After taking into account the women’s age, weight, smoking, alcohol intake, exercise, and education, researchers found that each one centimeter of height lost was linked to a 14 percent greater risk of death from any cause among Swedish women, and 21 percent among Danish women.
More than Doubles the Risk of Dying From Stroke
Major loss of height was defined as greater than two centimeters and this was linked to an increased death risk among Swedes of 74 percent, and among Danes, 80 percent.
For the two groups combined this resulted in a death risk that increased by nearly 2.5 times for stroke, just over double (2.14) for cardiovascular disease, and a 71 percent increase for death due to causes other than cardiovascular disease.
Short stature and lots of leisure time engaging in physical activity at enrollment, such as participation in competitive sports, was linked to a reduction in height loss.
While this type of study cannot prove causation, the authors suggest shrinkage in middle age is a “marker” for an increase in risk of death, at least in northern European women.
They wrote, “Despite its simplicity, height measurement is rarely included in the clinical examination by a general practitioner” but should be undertaken “to facilitate actions for cardiovascular disease prevention.”
They also mention other research that indicates “height loss as an important indicator of low BMD [bone mass density], vertebral fractures and vitamin D deficiency.”
While they admit that knowledge on how to prevent loss of height is “sparce,” they deemed that their study “confirmed that regular physical exercise could contribute significantly to height loss prevention.”