Height Loss & Mortality

People do become shorter as they get older. While a small amount of height loss is unlikely to cause problems, losing a significant amount of height might indicate other health problems, such as osteoporosis. Loss of height can affect the normal functioning of lungs and the gastrointestinal tract, which can lead to loss of appetite, poor nutritional status and weight loss. It also appears to be associated with loss of muscle mass and strength.

To study the problem, researchers from the Royal Free and University College Medical School and the University of London, involved in the British Regional Heart Study screened 7,735 men ages 40 to 59 years drawn from one general practice in 24 British towns between 1978 and 1980. After 20 years, all those who survived — now ages 60 to 79 — were asked to come in for a follow-up examination. Among other tests, the men’s height and weight were measured without shoes at the baseline examination and at 20 years later. A total of 4,252 men took part in the follow-up height and weight screening. Of these, valid measures of height change were available in 4,213 men.

Recordings were monitored during the entire period to identify deaths and heart disease in all those who took part in the initial part of the study. The men in the study also filled out surveys that detailed their habits and their medical histories. They were asked to describe their health status as excellent, good, fair or poor. They were also asked if their physicians had ever told them they had heart disease, as well as other chronic health conditions.

On average, the men lost 1.67 centimeters in height during the 20 years of the study. However, that height loss varied with individuals. Mean height loss increased with increasing age.

The researchers found that the risk of dying increased with the loss of height and was much higher in men who were three centimeters or more shorter than they had been when they were middle-aged. Losing three centimeters or more in height was also associated with an increase in risk for major heart disease problems.

The researchers noted that when the subjects became three centimeters or more shorter as they aged significantly increased the risk of death in the men, “largely owing to an excess in cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel), respiratory (lung) and other non-CVD (cardiovascular disease), non-cancer deaths.” They noted that while loss of height was associated with heart disease, it was not associated with stroke.

The researchers noted that the relationship between height loss and death is unclear. They hypothesized that osteoporosis or loss of bone mass is known to be associated with increased death rates and is also a reason for loss of height in men. However, the height loss associated with osteoporosis is usually much greater than that, and the researchers said osteoporosis is unlikely to be the only reason. Certain underlying features that may be a fault in heart disease may also contribute to loss of height, the researchers said.   However, they said the relationship remains unclear and warrants further study.

The bottom line: Losing significant amounts of height as you age may mean that you are at increased risk of developing heart disease. Talking with your doctor about these risks may enable you to reduce the threat.


S. Goya Wannamethee, PhD; A. Gerald Shaper, FRCP; Lucy Lennon, MSc; Peter H. Whincup, FRCP, PhD, “Height Loss in Older Men: Associations With Total Mortality and Incidence of Cardiovascular Disease,” Arch Intern Med. 2006;166:2546-2552