Size (of parents) matters
posted on: Oct 22, 2012
A collaboration lead by SPHSU’s Dr Linsay Gray, with the University of Glasgow, University of Bristol and University College London has found that parent height may affect a child's risk of developing heart disease in adulthood, particularly for mothers.
Although determined to an extent by genes, the height of a fully grown man or woman can be considered as a “marker” of the circumstances they experienced early in life such as illness, living conditions, diet and stress. Such early life circumstances have been shown to be linked to health risks later in life. In fact, the height of an individual is also linked with their chance of developing chronic health conditions – taller people are at lower risk of heart disease, for example. There is evidence that poor health which is caused by challenging circumstances during development early in life may also be transmitted from generation to generation. In previous studies, taller parents tended to have children with favourable health profiles in terms of, for instance, lower blood pressure and less body fat. Also, deprivation which is linked to small stature, appears to influence risk of heart disease across generations. The effect of the height of parents on risk of heart disease in their adult children has not previously been directly investigated in detail until now.
Data on 1,456 married couples in two Scottish towns who had their height measured during the 1970s were combined with data on 2,306 of their adult children (the “offspring”) who had their health risk assessed in 1996 when aged 30-59 years. The offspring were followed to see if they were admitted to hospital or died from heart disease.
The researchers found that taller height in both parents was linked with a lower risk of heart disease in their offspring, but the association was stronger for the height of the mothers. The decrease in risk was 15% for every 5.6 cm increase in height of the mother. The association remained after we accounted for differences in age, sex, the height of the other parent, and factors in the offspring linked with heart disease risk, including their own height.
The stronger link with the height of the mother could be explained by stronger associations between health related behaviours of mothers and their children, or the mother’s womb being affected by her own early life circumstances. The findings are particularly pertinent to populations of emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil which are moving from traditional lifestyles –with often limited nutrition – to Western-style abundance. Those current generations typically have low birth weight on the one hand but subsequent build up of high body fat on the other hand – a combination known to be a health hazard; these nations are presently experiencing rising levels of heart disease. Moves to improve nutrition in women of child-bearing age alongside measures to reverse the obesity epidemic could be useful in the global containment of heart disease in current and future generations.
The work was funded by the Wellcome Trust and the MRC. The full paper can be found here.
A blog on this research can be found here: