All those many parents out there feeding their kids growth hormones to make them taller might want to take note of a recent study finding a significant relationship between height and cancer. The British study of over 1.2 million women, conducted by Oxford University, found that for every additional four inches of height over 5’1″, the risk of cancer increased by 16 percent.1 Translated, this means that 7.5 out of 1,000 women under the height of five feet get cancer each year, compared to 10 out of 1000 women over five feet nine inches. Viewed yet another way, women over 5’9″ have a 37 percent increased risk of cancer compared to their diminutive sisters.2
According to study director Dr. Jane Green, “All the evidence from past studies is that this link is seen equally in men and women.” In other words, though tall guys earn 25 percent more than short men, have a 50 percent greater shot at making it to CEO of a company, have more likelihood of finding a partner and father more children, the cosmic balancing act has also assigned them a greater risk for cancer.
The study followed the 1.2 million subjects for about 10 years. During that time, 97,000 of the subjects developed cancer. That’s almost 10 percent, a disturbing result in itself. But for the vertically endowed, the results are particularly disturbing not just because cancer and height seem to have a close relationship, but also because the association holds across many types of cancer.3 In fact, of the 17 types of cancer reviewed in the study, 15 increased in incidence as height increased. Of those 15 cancers, 10 increased in incidence to a significant degree, including colon, rectal, breast, endometrial (uterus), ovarian, and kidney cancers, as well as malignant melanoma, lymphoma, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and leukemia.
Another result that tall women might find upsetting is that the taller women in the study actually had some healthier lifestyle practices than their petite peers, and still, they got more cancers. They exercised more, smoked less, were skinnier, and wealthier, though they did tend to drink more alcohol. One lifestyle factor that did trump height, though, was smoking. Smoking-related cancers did not increase as height increased.
The researchers don’t know exactly why tall people get more cancers, but they suspect that HGH — human growth hormone — might have something to do with it. Taller people have higher levels of HGH, and the scientists theorize that might induce their cells to divide at greater speed and frequency, which could lead to more mutations and malignancies. They also postulate that tall people might simply have more cells in their bodies, meaning more opportunities for cancers to develop. They say the findings may explain the increase in cancers in the population at large, since the population has been getting steadily taller, increasing nearly half an inch each decade in the 20th Century. That’s an interesting theory, but it also may be a spiffy way to deny the carcinogenic role played by pesticides, herbicides, EMFs, fast foods, lack of exercise, and stress in the 20th Century.
In any event, the study raises the question of whether tall people should just throw in the towel, take to the hammock, and sloth around until cancer hits. The answer is that eating right and exercising still decreases individual cancer risk. Even though the tall people in the study developed more cancers in spite of their healthier lifestyles, it’s likely that far more of them would have gotten cancer if they had also indulged in unhealthy lifestyle behaviors. It’s the same principal that applies for those who have a genetic predisposition to develop any disease. Your risk may be higher than average, but you can nevertheless diminish that risk considerably by living healthy.
The researchers advise tall people not to panic, and especially not parents of tall kids. “Parents should not withhold food from their children to stunt their growth for cancer risk reduction,” said Dr. Tim Byers, who directs Cancer Prevention and Control at the University of Colorado Cancer Center in Denver. That comment would seem farfetched to the point of laugh-out-loud funny if it weren’t for the fact that, as noted earlier in this blog, plenty of parents now give growth hormones to their kids thinking that height offers big advantages. If that’s true, then it makes sense that parents might start looking for radical ways to curtail the too-fast growth of their children — even giving them growth-stunting drugs or withholding food in the attempt to reduce risk.
Worrisome though this study seems for those taller than average, there are other factors that add a different spin to the height equation. A Finnish study of three million people last year, for instance, found that tall people are 1.5 times less likely to die from heart disease compared to short people.4 So it’s more or less a wash — heart disease kills 616,000 individuals in the US annually, and cancer kills 563,000. Tall or short, something is going to get you in the end.5 The silver lining here is that the experts seem to agree that “the end” can be postponed, whether you’re tall or short, if you take good care of yourself.
As Sara Hiom of Cancer Research UK says, “While we can’t control our height [obviously she isn’t talking to the parents who are injecting their kids with HGH], there are many lifestyle choices people can make that we know have a greater impact on reducing the risk of cancer such as not smoking, moderating alcohol, keeping a healthy weight and being physically active.”
The scientists believe they can use the study results to pursue understanding of just what provokes tumors to grow. Dr. Green comments, “The interest in this study is in giving us a clue about how cancers might develop. It’s the similarity for many different kinds of cancers, in people with many different risk factors and in many different populations, that makes us think it’s something very fundamental in cancer development.”
1 Bakalar, Nicholas. “Women’s Cancer Risk Increases with Height, Study Finds.” 29 July 2011. The New York Times. 8 September 2011. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/02/health/nutrition/02risks.html?_r=1>
2 Gallagher, James. “Tall people ‘more likely to develop cancer.” 20 July 2011. BBC News. 8 September 2011. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-14220382>
3 “Study Contends Taller People at Greater Cancer Risk.” 21 July 2011. Medline Plus. 8 September 2011. <http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/news/fullstory_114503.html>
4 “Short People are More Likely to Develop Heart Disease than Tall People, Review Finds.” 9 June 2010. Science Daily. 8 September 2011. <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/06/100608211134.htm>
5 “Fast Stats.” 2007. Centers for Disease Control. 8 September 2011. <http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/lcod.htm>