An illustration of a person having their height measured is shown.
A man’s height may impact his risk for heart disease, but there are other factors clearly within any man’s control. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

If you’re a male of short stature are you more at risk for heart trouble?

A recent study in The New England Journal of Medicine seems to point in that direction.

Researchers scoured information from more than 65,000 people with coronary artery disease and 128,000 people with no signs of plaque buildup in the heart.

They focused on 180 genetic markers known to affect people’s height, to see if there was a link to coronary artery disease.

The study found that, for every 2.5-inch increase in height, the risk of coronary artery disease decreased nearly 14 percent.

So, if you’re 5-foot tall, your risk of plaque-lined coronary arteries is 32 percent higher than if you stood 5-foot-6-inches, the research claims.

Spectrum Health Medical Group cardiologist Michael McNamara, MD, said he was impressed with the research, but hasn’t noticed such a trend in his own practice.

“The fascinating thing about this disease is it does not discriminate,” Dr. McNamara said. “It’s the No. 1 killer for males and females. I’ve had patients as young as in their 20s, although that’s quite rare. People in their 30s have heart attacks. The gender split is pretty much 50/50.”

Dr. McNamara said only well-researched studies that are scientifically supported make it into the New England Journal of Medicine.

“I think it’s a very novel approach to assessing risk and one I’m sure is only going to gain traction,” he said. “The problem is, human genes are so complex. The holy grail is discovering how the numerous different factors cause atherosclerosis (plaque buildup in arteries), so then we’d be able to prevent it from even occurring.”

Dr. McNamara said he’s never before thought of height potentially affecting heart disease.

While impressed with the study’s scientific depth, he didn’t think it proved cause and effect, that if you’re short, that causes cardiovascular disease.

“The association is interesting, but that’s pretty much where it stops for me,” he said. “It’s an interesting and novel way to look at this issue.”

Dr. McNamara hopes people realize it’s not so much your stature, but rather your habits and perhaps your genes that determine your risk factor.

“The important point here is that the risk is really multi-faceted,” Dr. McNamara said. “Usually it’s not just one thing.”

When he’s in clinic, Dr. McNamara typically talks to patients about five risk factors, four of which they can control—high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and smoking. The fifth risk factor? Bad family history (multiple family members with premature coronary artery disease—before age 60).

Dr. McNamara noted that the study did find an association between short males and high cholesterol, one of the risk factors that can lead to cardiovascular disease.

“There’s a complex underlying biological process that puts those patients at a higher risk of having high cholesterol,” Dr. McNamara said. “But most of the risk regarding development of coronary artery disease is associated with those five risk factors.”

He recommends blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes screening, and asking your primary care physician for help if you’re a smoker.

“These are issues for a patient to be mindful of,” he said. “Many who don’t go in for a routine physical may have these medical problems and not even know it. They may feel fine. Even though they don’t have symptoms, they still could be at risk.”

Dr. McNamara also recommends a healthy diet.

“In general, the less processed food the better,” he said. “Cook with fresh ingredients and more of a plant-based diet. The Mediterranean diets are the most heart healthy with lean proteins, beans, seafood and plenty of fruits and vegetables.”

No pun intended, but Dr. McNamara concluded by saying he stops short of saying he agrees with the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. But he’s not slamming it, either.

“This may be one of the early little insights, that in 20 or 30 years, we’ll look back and say, ‘It’s so logical now,’” he said. “This field is always evolving. Our goal is always to do a better job and prevent morbidity and mortality.”

Explore the Expect Extraordinary heart health website for more information about heart care and how people have overcome their heart conditions.