THURSDAY, Nov. 22, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Forget pot bellies. Men should look lower down, to the length of their legs, to find one risk of heart disease.
For every 1½ inch less of leg length, a man's chances of heart disease increase 10 percent, says a report by British doctors in the December Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health."It's a continuous effect. A man whose legs measure 30 inches long has a 10 percent higher chance of heart disease than a man with legs 31½ inches long," says Dr. George Davey Smith, an epidemiologist at the University of Bristol and lead author of a new study.
Previous studies have found that short men are at a higher risk for the illness, but Smith and his colleagues found that shorter leg length rather than trunk length was associated with the increased risk. The data was based on the incidence of heart disease among 2,500 men over a 15-year period in the area of Caerphilly, South Wales.
But without measuring those pot bellies, one critic of the study says you can't blame short legs alone for the risk increase.
"Without a measurement of waist circumference, the leg length by itself is an inadequate explanation of the findings," says Dr. Robert H. Eckel, a physiology professor at the University of Colorado.
Eckel says the findings may be related to fat distribution rather than to leg length. Men with shorter legs have fewer places to put their fat, so the fat is concentrated in the stomach area, and a high degree of centralization of body fat is associated with an increase in heart disease risk, he says.
Smith says since legs grow most in childhood, before puberty, short legs could be an indication of poor nutrition, infection or environmental hardships in childhood which somehow predisposed adults to a higher risk of heart disease.
"[The study] is a signal that childhood experiences may have contributed in terms of effects on heart disease," Smith says.
In any event, what are short-legged men to do with the information?
"Well, we can't put the blokes on a rack and stretch them out," Smith says. "But men with short legs [should know] they are at a higher risk for heart disease and have more to gain from interventions like weight loss, stopping smoking and watching cholesterol."
The men in the study were between the ages of 45 and 59 and represented 90 percent of all the same-age men in the local area. They were measured for height in both standing and sitting positions to find the length of their legs. They also submitted to a battery of tests on their health, including measurements of blood pressure and cholesterol, insulin, glucose and triglyceride levels. They further reported on their lifestyles and that of their fathers, smoking history, occupations and employment.
Information about heart disease was taken from death certificates, hospital reports and ECG recordings taken every five years.
The researchers also found a similarly significant increase among the shorter-legged men in insulin resistance, a condition which eventually leads to diabetes. But Eckel says this finding also could be related to body fat distribution rather than leg length.