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Experts say shorter people can make lifestyle changes to keep their blood sugar levels in check and reduce their risk for diabetes. Getty Images
  • Researchers say height may be a determining factor in the risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • The new study concludes that shorter people are at higher risk.
  • Researchers add that the taller a person is, the lower their risk of diabetes.
  • Experts say conditions such as excess liver fat and blood lipids may be some of the reasons height is a risk factor.

It may sound like medical fiction, but researchers say that shorter people are indeed at higher risk of type 2 diabetes.

While you can’t do anything about your height, researchers say increased awareness and lifestyle changes can help shorter people avoid this serious illness.

Conversely, the taller you are, the lower your diabetes risk, according to a recent study by researchers at the German Institute of Human Nutrition Potsdam-Rehbruecke.

The researchers reported that the risk of type 2 diabetes fell 41 percent for men and 33 percent for women for each 10 centimeters (about 4 inches) in additional height.

Specifically, individuals with the longest legs had the lowest diabetes risk, particularly among men.

“Our findings suggest that short people might [have] higher cardiometabolic risk factor levels and have higher diabetes risk compared with tall people,” the researchers wrote.

Why height may be a factor

This isn’t the first study to link height and risk of type 2 diabetes, but researchers took a closer look at risk related to components of height, including leg length and sitting height.

Shorter height and leg length, for example, may be related to poor nutrition in childhood, a known risk factor for diabetes, Nabil Adam, PhD, a Rutgers University researcher, told Healthline.

The study also found that at least some of the increased risk among shorter people could be traced to higher levels of liver fat, blood lipids, and other known diabetes risk factors, such as elevated levels of triglycerides, adiponectin, and C-reactive protein.

“Specifically, liver fat contributes to the higher risk among shorter individuals and, because height appears to be largely unmodifiable during adulthood, interventions to reduce liver fat may provide alternative approaches to reduce risk associated with shorter height,” the researchers said.

Taller people, on the other hand, have been shown in past studies to be less insulin sensitive and have better beta cell function, meaning they metabolize insulin better and store less fat in their liver.

Findings in the study of 2,500 people were adjusted for age, lifestyle, education, and waist circumference.

Risk declined most dramatically among people of normal weight, according to the study, which was published in Diabetologia, the journal of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes. 

“This may indicate that a higher diabetes risk with larger waist circumference counteracts beneficial effects related to height, irrespective of whether larger waist circumference is due to growth or due to consuming too many calories,” the researchers wrote.

“These observations corroborate that height is a useful predictive marker for diabetes risk and suggest that monitoring of cardiometabolic risk factors may be more frequently indicated among shorter persons, independent of their body size and composition,” the study authors suggested.

What other experts say

“It is well known that unusual statures are associated with certain metabolic illnesses,” Dr. Lawrence Gerlis, chief executive officer of the United Kingdom-based, told Healthline. “So, for example, Syndrome X, which causes abnormalities in lipids such as cholesterol and also diabetes, is associated with short stature and increased girth measurement around the waist.”

“The causes of this are complex and may well be genetic, but a tall lean posture has generally been recognized as being healthier than a shorter, fatter body shape,” added Gerlis. “The body size affects the way that fats are transported and dealt with in the liver, and this too affects pancreatic function, leading to type 2 diabetes.”

Ruth Pupo Garcia, a registered dietitian with Adventist Health White Memorial in Los Angeles, cautioned against putting too much emphasis on height over other diabetes risk factors.

“Shorter individuals may be more likely to be overweight, since average food portions are excessive. However, body fat content, not height in particular, would have more of an impact on type 2 diabetes risk,” she told Healthline.

“In other words, if a short-statured person has normal BMI, weight, and body fat, they would have less risk of developing type 2 diabetes… Furthermore a tall obese man… with or without family history of diabetes, and poor eating habits may be at far more higher risk of developing the disease.”

“We must remember that diabetes risk is multifactorial, and we cannot identify risk based on height or on one factor alone,” said Garcia.