A study of older British men finds that those who shrink in height by about an inch or more over 20 years are more likely to die earlier than other men. Those men also have a greater risk of heart disease.
Scant research had been done previously on the health effects of height loss during aging, except for the extreme bone loss of osteoporosis.
Height loss "may well be another marker of declining health in the elderly," said study co-author Goya Wannamethee, an epidemiologist at Royal Free & University College Medical School in London.
Height loss almost always occurs with other evidence of frailty, she said, such as loss of mobility, weight loss, breathing trouble and musculoskeletal problems, such as arthritis.
Other research has shown similar factors underlie both osteoporosis and heart disease, such as high cholesterol, inflammation and high blood pressure, she said. Inflammation and lipids in the blood may contribute to low bone mineral density, although the exact mechanism is unclear.
The findings, published in Monday’s Archives of Internal Medicine, suggest that men should exercise to maintain the muscle strength needed to stand tall, said Dr. Anne Kenny of the University of Connecticut Health Center, who studies osteoporosis and frailty, but was not involved in the new study.
A small study has shown that yoga can increase height in women, Kenny said, and yoga may also help men.
"It points to the need to increase physical activity and try to maintain strength to ward off disability and mortality," Kenny said.
Researchers measured the height of 4,213 British men, first in the late 1970s when the men were between the ages of 40 and 59, then 20 years later, when the men were 60 to 79 years old.
About 15 percent of the men lost more than 3 centimeters in height. That’s about 1.2 inches. Osteoporosis is usually associated with much greater height loss.
The men also completed a medical and lifestyle questionnaire, were weighed and gave a blood sample. The researchers followed the men for another six years, during which 760 of the men died.
The men who lost 3 centimeters or more in height were 60 percent more likely to die within six years than the men who retained their height, the researchers found.
When the scientists considered age, smoking, alcohol use and pre-existing health conditions, they still saw a relationship between height loss, earlier death and heart disease.
More research is needed to measure the importance of muscle mass and muscle strength in the aging process, Wannamethee said.
"It is unlikely that just maintaining one’s height is the key to longevity," she said.