Link between adult leg length and coronary heart disease in women

Researchers at Bristol University have found a link between adult leg length – an indicator of diet and living conditions during childhood – and coronary heart disease in women.  The study, published in Heart next Tuesday [15 June], found that women with shorter legs had an increased risk of coronary heart disease.

Dr Debbie Lawlor and colleagues measured adult height, leg length, trunk length and weight and assessed rates of heart disease among more than 4,000 women between 60 and 79 years of age from 23 British towns.  How well their lungs worked, whether they were former or current smokers, and their social class were also taken into account.

Leg length is specifically associated with diet and living conditions in childhood and therefore the researchers were interested to discover whether leg length would be associated with heart disease since this would be further evidence that risk factors in childhood and not just adulthood are important causes of heart disease.

The researchers found that almost 700 women had heart disease, giving a rate of around one in six (16 per cent).  Just under one third (31 per cent) of these women had a history of heart attacks; the remainder had angina but had not had a heart attack.

"The protective effect of tall stature is likely to be a proxy for environmental factors from birth up to puberty which affect both growth of the bones in the legs and also have a long term effect on heart disease in the future." Dr Debbie Lawlor

Unsurprisingly, women with heart disease were more likely to be older, more obese and to be former or current smokers than women who did not have heart disease.  They were also more likely to have poorer lung function, to have higher cholesterol levels, to be more insulin resistant – a precursor to diabetes – and to come from working class families.  But they were also more likely to have shorter trunks and legs.

When all the potential risk factors were taken into account, leg length remained strongly linked to risk of heart disease with this risk decreasing by an average of 16 per cent for every increase of 4.3 cm in leg length.

Dr Lawlor said: “The protective effect of tall stature is unlikely to be the result of wider arteries or to less height shrinkage with age.  Rather it is likely to be a proxy for environmental factors from birth up to puberty which affect both growth of the bones in the legs and also have a long term effect on heart disease in the future.

“Breast feeding, high energy diets at the age of two and being born into an affluent family all positively influence growth; having parents who smoke and being born into a poor family negatively influence growth.  The association between leg length and heart disease suggests that these early life risk factors also cause heart disease.”

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