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Back in the High Life

Study says 1,000 years ago, like today, taller people lived longer

WEDNESDAY, June 13 - (HealthDayNews) - In 9th-century Britain, walking tall may have been the road to a long life, says a British epidemiologist.

Dr. David Gunnell, a senior lecturer in epidemiology and public health medicine at the University of Bristol, in Bristol, U.K., is the lead author of a new paper suggesting that the skeletal remains of long-dead Brits reveal that those who were tall in life lived longer than their shorter counterparts.

"Contemporary studies of adult males and females carried out in Sweden, Norway [and] Britain tend to show that people who are taller live longer than shorter people," says Gunnell. "Our curiosity was to see whether those overall height/mortality associations existed in a more ancient population."

But not everyone buys the long-and-short of the argument. Another expert says height has very little to do with longevity.

This latest study, which appears in the July Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, looked at whether bone length measured in an archaeological investigation predicted the age at which people died.

Gunnell and his colleagues examined 490 sets of skeletal adult remains from an excavation of roughly 3,000 skeletons at St. Peter's Church in Barton-upon-Humber, a community in northeastern Britain.

The graves dated back to the 9th century. The team didn't count remains that were obviously those of children or adolescents, or for which the gender could not be determined.

On the remaining bodies, the length to the nearest millimeter (0.04 inches) of at least one of the long bones in the legs or arms were measured and estimated the age of death.

Gunnell admits that the estimate of age at death was relatively crude because of the age of the bones. The team's best guess was only whether death had occurred before the age of 30 or before the age of 45.

The researchers determined that 39 percent of men and 56 percent of women died before the age of 30; 55 percent of the men and 73 percent of the women died before the age of 45.

"[Childbirth] was a more common cause of death in ancient times than today," says Gunnell, speculating as to why women were much more likely to die younger.

The odds of death before the age of 30 decreased as bone length increased, says Gunnell.

However, he adds that it's impossible to draw conclusions about what kinds of real-world heights were associated with either a longer life span or a premature death. Since the researchers had only a few skeletal clues from each body – which wasn't enough to accurately estimate the deceased's living height – they had to base their conclusions on standardized deviations from the average long bone length that they found. Gunnell and his colleagues found a 10 percent to 20 percent decline in the risk of premature mortality for each each standard deviation (SD) increase in bone length.

"[We] found that the association between bone length and age of death was similar to that found in contemporary populations," says Gunnell, suggesting that greater bone length, and thus greater height, was linked to a longer life.

"Early life factors have long-term influences on major disease risk," he says. "So if you're undernourished in utero, in childhood you have a poor diet and suffer many illnesses, that in turn affects your growth. Some of the factors may have long-term influences upon the risk of developing heart disease and cancer and other diseases."

However, Thomas Samaras says longevity is more likely in short people.

Samaras, the author of The Truth About Your Height, is the director of the San Diego-based Reventropy Associates, a research organization that studies height, health, resource consumption and performance.

He notes that an 40-year epidemiological study of more than 10,000 Scottish men and women, which was published last year in the journal Public Health, found that "no substantial or statistically significant associations were seen between height and all-cause or all-cancer mortality in either sex."

He says that more than 20 studies have found either no relation between greater height and longevity, or have actually found that taller people have greater mortality rates.

"The reasons for conflicting findings are related to the fact that height is not the only factor related to the health and longevity picture," says Samaras. Socioeconomic status, education level, smoking, diet, exercise and quality of medical are some of the other factors, he says.

"Dr. Gunnell and [his] associates' findings did not account for socioeconomic status," Samaras says. "Taller people tend to be more often of higher socioeconomic classes and this can make a big difference in mortality."

Samaras says that some studies have found that people in lower socioeconomic classes have four times the death rate of those in the richest class. "This could certainly incorrectly indicate that taller people are healthier when in fact they are healthier because they come from higher socioeconomic classes."

Gunnell acknowledges that not knowing which socioeconomic class the owners of the bones came from is a problem. "I think it's important not to over-interpret these findings," he says.

What To Do:

How long will you live? This quiz from Northwestern Mutual can make a rough guess of you life expectancy based on life insurance statistical research.

Planning to live to 100 – and beyond? Better check out the New England Centenarian Study Web site, especially since recent research suggests that the American population is living longer.

SOURCES: Interviews with David J. Gunnell, M.D., Ph.D., senior lecturer in epidemiology and public health medicine, Department of Social Medicine, University of Bristol, Bristol, U.K., and Thomas T. Samaras, B.S., M.B.A., director, Reventropy Associates, San Diego, Calif.; July 2001 Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health
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