I come from a very long line of short people. Mom barely reached 5 feet, Dad was almost as wide as he was tall, and it was no surprise to learn that one of my uncles was known as “Teeny.” The story goes that my first-grade teacher gave me a telephone book to sit on so I could get a better view of the blackboard. I don’t actually remember that, but I’ve no reason to doubt it. I was a little kid and never really sprouted the way most of my classmates did by the time we escaped high school.
My diminutive stature didn’t prevent me from playing all manner of sports, but it did prove to be an obstacle in certain situations. I’m convinced, for example, that the people at the DMV who flunked me the first three times I took my driver’s test did so chiefly because they happened to notice that my feet could barely reach the pedals of my dad’s Ford Fairlane. I finally passed muster driving my brother’s 1959 VW bug, which lacked a fully functioning reverse gear but probably struck the evaluator as a more appropriate vehicle for the runt behind the wheel.
Fifty years later, I seldom experience much difficulty operating an automobile or navigating more or less smoothly in a world full of people looking down at me. At a certain point in life, size actually doesn’t matter. Which is partly why the results of a Danish study published last week in the journal eLife caught my attention. Researchers at the University of Copenhagen suggest that I’m more likely than the taller peers of my youth to develop dementia.
“We wanted to see if body height in young men is associated with diagnosis of dementia, while exploring whether intelligence test scores, educational level, and underlying environmental and genetic factors shared by brothers explain the relationship,” lead study author Terese Sara Høj Jørgensen, MPH, explains in a statement.
Analyzing data on more than 666,000 Danish men born between 1939 and 1959, Jørgensen and her team found that 10,599 of them had developed dementia later in life. When they adjusted for various factors, they found that every 6 centimeters (2.4 inches) above average height reduced by about l0 percent the risk of developing the disease. Theoretically, at least, that means I’m about 20 percent more likely to succumb to dementia than my 6-foot-tall basketball buddy in high school.
Genetics don’t seem to play a role in this pattern. Researchers found that taller brothers also were less likely than their shorter kin to develop the disease. And by adjusting for intelligence levels and educational achievement, they account for what senior author Merete Osler, MD, PhD, calls “cognitive reserve” — the brain’s ability to offset the effects of cognitive dysfunction by improvising.
“Together, our results point to an association between taller body height in young men and a lower risk of dementia later in life, which persists even when adjusted for educational level and intelligence test scores,” Osler says. “Our analysis of the data concerning brothers confirms these findings and suggests the association may have common roots in early-life environmental exposures that are not related to family factors shared by brothers.”
That’s about all the explanation researchers offer height-challenged geezers like me who might wonder why our youthful stature sets us up for cognitive challenges later in life. It’s not like we had much control over our physical dimensions in high school, but it would be nice to know what might have tipped the scale. (I suspect my pack-a-day Marlboro habit as a teen wasn’t optimal.)
At a time when the search for an Alzheimer’s cure has basically hit a dead end, Jørgensen’s research provides yet another reason for the senior set to fret about its cognitive future. But I take heart in the knowledge that my three brothers are about the same size as I am, and the two septuagenarians among them seem to have so far retained their wits. And, as I like to remind my aged comrades, a study is just a study. We’re all unique individuals, subject to the whims of fate and our own capricious biology.
Just the other day, for instance, my old buddy Leo and I were swapping stories over lunch when our conversation stalled due to our complete inability to recall the name of a local publisher we both knew back in the ’80s. “It’ll come to me,” I said finally. “I’ll be blurting it out over dessert.”
Leo’s carrot cake arrived. Nothing. My latte was cooling. Still nothing. I finally looked it up on my phone. I had to laugh.
These sorts of tests arise more often than I’d like to admit, but it’s just life here in Geezerville. On Tuesday you’re sharp as a tack; on Thursday you can’t find your keys. I often remind myself that things could be worse. At least I’ll never have to take another driving test.