Darryl Dawkins was larger than life. I don’t mean on the basketball court. I mean in the Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania, which is home to the Dawkins family and Rodale Inc., the parent company of Men’s Health.
Live here longer than a few years, as I have, and you’d inevitably run into Chocolate Thunder at Wegmans or on the sidelines of a youth lacrosse game. As a long-time Sixers fan, I was hoping to finally meet him this weekend—we were both planning to watch a mutual friend’s 10-year-old daughter do a charity swim for juvenile diabetes.
It wasn’t meant to be. Dawkins died unexpectedly of an apparent heart attack on August 27. He was only 58.
Then, this past weekend, the basketball world lost another legend, Moses Malone, also of an apparent heart attack. He was 60.
Two legendary players, two similar deaths. It makes you think, especially because they had another thing in common: They were both nearly 7 feet tall.
And these are just the latest tragedies. Wilt Chamberlin, who was 7-foot-1, died of heart failure at the age of 63. Earlier this year, Jack Haley, a 6-foot-10 center who played for the Bulls, Nets, Spurs, and other teams, died of heart disease at the age of 51. Last April, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had a quadruple bypass at the age of 68.
Begs the question: Do taller men have a higher risk of heart disease and early death?
If you’re NBA shooting guard height, you might want to skip right ahead to The 100 Hottest Woman of 2015, because it could be bad news for you. In fact, some of the evidence is fairly convincing:
* A 1992 study of nearly 1,700 dead guys found that, on average, men shorter than 5’9” hung around till the ripe old age of 71. Men taller than 6’4”, on the other hand, checked out around the age of 64.
* The residents of Okinawa, an island off the coast of Japan, have historically had the longest life expectancy on earth—age 78 for men—and a 40 percent lower risk of heart disease and cancer. They also have the largest number of centenarians per capita. The average height of those who live to blow out 100 candles: 5 feet even.
* Most centenarians worldwide are shorter than 5-foot-5.
“Within nearly every species, smaller individuals live longer,” says Thomas Samaras, who runs Reventropy Associates in San Diego, a nonprofit that investigates the ramifications of a world population that’s constantly getting taller and heavier. Tiny dogs, cats, elephants, rats, bats . . . turns out they all live to become cantankerous old coots.
The same is true of humans, Samaras says, with one asterisk: They must have access to proper nutrition and a healthy lifestyle. Otherwise, the opposite is true. Unhealthy short people die younger than unhealthy tall people. “Shorter people tend to be more overweight or obese,” Samaras says. “Also, early childhood health problems can stunt growth and impact adult health.”
So what’s a tall guy to do? Samaras advises against freaking out and running to your cardiologist’s office. Instead:
1. Keep perspective. Height studies tend to be small. “It’s difficult to get a large group of people who are 6’10” together to study these things,” says Michael A. Rosenberg, M.D., of the Harvard Medical School. For every Dawkins and Malone and Wilt, there’s a 6-foot-9 Bill Russell, who’s 81 now.
2. Be skeptical. For every study that connects height and early death, you can find one that concludes the opposite. A 2014 study, for example, found that taller people have a 20 to 25 percent lower risk of sudden cardiac death, the disorder that too often takes youth athletes out.
3. Look down regularly. The biggest risk factor you have for an early earthly exit is your weight. Samaras says that healthy short people have lower body mass indexes than healthy tall guys, and research has shown a direct correlation between lower BMI and longevity. Your play: Keep your BMI in check with a total-body training plan like The Anarchy Workout. (One guy lost 18 pounds of fat in 6 weeks.)
4. Wear cuffs. Healthy short people also generally have lower blood pressure, Samaras says. Because they have shorter circulatory systems, their hearts don’t have to work as hard. Try these tips to Lower Your BP by 8 a.m.
5. Eat fewer calories. This might be the granddaddy of all longevity-related tips. Those little 100-year-old Okinawans? They ate 36 percent fewer calories than mainland Japanese counterparts as kids, and 17 percent less as adults. Researchers don’t think it’s a coincidence that life expectancy jumped worldwide by 6 years during the Great Depression—a time when food was harder to find.
6. Chill the hell out. Samaras looked at 145 longevity studies that have been published over the past 35 years, and says that, best as he can tell, height is only 10 percent of the longevity picture. Many other factors have as big an impact: economic status, smoking, alcohol intake, exercise levels, and of course genetics. So instead of stressing about your height, focus your energy on the 6 Ways to Become a Millionaire. Rich people, it turns out, live five years longer than poor people.
Bill Phillips is the Editor-in-Chief of Men’s Health, and the author of The Better Man Project.
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