Taller women may live longer, according to a new study — but this isn't the case for men

Dziurek / ShutterstockTaller women may live longer.
  • Taller women may be more likely to reach age 90 than shorter women, according to new research.
  • But the same is not true for taller men, the results show.
  • For men, exercising more than 60 minutes a day is the key to a longer life.
  • The researchers can only speculate why height would be associated with reaching old age in women.
  • One theory is it is related to shrinkage, which has been associated with various health problems.

Women may be more likely to reach 90 years old if they are taller, according to new research.

Scientists from Maastricht University looked at the association between height, body mass index (BMI), and exercise. The study,published in the BMJ Journal of Epidemiology & Community health, involved data from the Netherlands Cohort Study of men and women aged 55 to 69, which began in 1986.

Nearly 8,000 participants provided information about their weight at the age of 20, current weight, height, and time spent exercising. They were then monitored until they reached age 90, or died – whichever came first.

While 433 men and 944 women survived to age 90, women who reached this age were taller, weighed less at the start of the study, and had put on less weight since age 20 than those who died before this age.

Women who were over 5 ft 9 in height were 31% more likely to reach 90 years old than women who were 5 ft 3 or shorter.

“We can only speculate on why height would be associated with reaching old age in women,” lead author Lloyd Brandts told INSIDER.

“We did hypothesize that the observed relationship might be related to shrinkage, which is more common among women. Therefore, those who were taller at the start of our study (at ages 68-70 years) might have experienced less shrinkage.”

According to Pham Liem at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, people shrink as they age for several reasons.

“Older adults can get shorter because the cartilage between their joints gets worn out and osteoporosis causes the spinal column to become shorter,” he said. “Adults can also lose lean muscle mass but gain fat. This is a condition called sarcopenia.”

Overall, shrinking has been associated with back pain, limited mobility, spinal and hip fractures, and even heart problems. However, as the researchers did not know the height of participants before the study, they are unable to say if this is definitely the case.

Maria SharapovaZak Kaczmarek/GettyMaria Sharapova is 6ft 2.

While taller women appear to have an ageing advantage, the same association wasn’t shown for men. Physical activity levels in men appeared to be more important, with those who exercised more than 90 minutes a day being 39% more likely to reach 90 than those who spent less than 30 minutes working out.

Women who exercised for 30-60 minutes a day were 21% more likely to reach age 90 than those who managed less than 30 minutes.

“We should be aware that the findings are based on an observational study, and therefore we cannot establish cause,” Brandts added. “For instance, a low level of physical activity might also be an indicator of deteriorating health, which in turn might also have led to an earlier death.”

Another potential limitation of the study is that body size and physical activity information was self-reported and not measured, and people are not always 100% trustworthy when answering questions about themselves.

Also, participants were already in their 60s and 70s at the start of the study, so it is difficult to generalize and apply to results to younger people.

It could be possible that taller women are more physically active in general, being more likely to take up sports. But Brandts said they corrected the results for BMI when analysing the relationship between physical activity and reaching old age.

“This means that the observed association between physical activity and reaching longevity is independent of BMI,” he said.

The study was large, and the participants were all a similar age, which strengthens the results overall. And although the association between body size and a long lifespan is different for men and women, the results for everyone add to the evidence that a key to reaching old age is exercise.

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