Using Historical Basketball Player Records to Investigate Height and Longevity

Height is a matter of importance to observers of basketball, so the records of professional players from past decades can be used to investigate the effects of height on longevity. Evidence to date strongly supports an inverse relationship in humans: the taller you are, the shorter your life expectancy, though the size of this effect is unclear and debated. The underlying reasons are thought to involve cancer risk, as taller people have more cells and thus more chances for something to go wrong, as well as lung function, and the influence of growth hormone metabolism on the pace of aging. To what degree does all of this matter? The ultimate goal of rejuvenation research programs such as those of the SENS Research Foundation is to make all of these interesting variations in human health and longevity entirely irrelevant: when medicine can turn back the causes of aging to grant additional decades of life, it will not in fact matter that your genetic heritage adds or removes a few years of life expectancy.

The premise that larger body size leads to reduction in lifespan longevity has generally been substantiated through scientific research over the past 40 years. For example, research suggests smaller body size is generally better for one's health, and is supported by robust cross-cultural findings of average lifespan reduction with increasing height observed in groups such as deceased American male veterans, French males and females who died before the year 1861 and males born in Sardinia, Italy between 1866 and 1915. While the biological reason for the relationship between height and lifespan longevity in humans is not yet fully understood, it is difficult to ignore the potential profound effect of genetics on lifespan longevity. A study on 8,006 American men of Japanese ancestry found height was positively associated with mortality, and perhaps of more interest, was the first to conclusively link the "longevity gene" FOX03 to smaller body size and greater lifespan longevity in humans.

Although a sizeable amount of evidence suggests that larger body size independently reduces longevity, it also important to recognize confounders of this relationship that affect biological parameters independent of body size characteristics, such as differences in genotypes, socioeconomic status (SES), education, medical care, relative weight, hygienic practices, nutrition, and lifestyle choices such as engaging in regular exercise and avoiding smoking. Further, it has been suggested that height generally explains less than 10% of the proportion of variance regarding longevity, and researchers surmise that the lack of consensus on the degree to which height affects longevity is likely due to the impact of these extraneous variables.

If height indeed influences longevity independently, deceased professional basketball players represent a promising group to further investigate this phenomenon in given their general exceptional height and relative homogeneity of other confounders such as affluence (particularly in the more recent decades), where the higher SES/social status may result in less confounding by factors such as ethnicity. We hypothesized that when adjusting for birth decade, exceptionally taller players will have died at relatively younger ages. The population of this study was comprised of living and deceased players who played in the National Basketball Association (NBA), debut between 1946-2010, and/or the American Basketball Association (ABA), debut between 1967-1976.

Overall, 3,901 living and deceased players were identified and had a mean height of 197.78 cm, and of those, 787 former players were identified as deceased with a mean height of 193.88 cm. Descriptive findings indicated that the tallest players (top 5%) died younger than the shortest players (bottom 5%) in all but one birth decade (1941-1950). Similarly, survival analyses showed a significant relationship between height and lifespan longevity, where taller players had a significantly higher mortality risk compared to shorter players (hazard ratio: 1.30). As many players have superior height compared to the age- and sex-matched average height of the US general population, there appears to be a curvilinear relationship between height and longevity where the magnitude of mortality risk decreases past a certain threshold. However, smaller sample sizes in the younger players may have been driving this effect. From a general population perspective, it is unclear whether there is a threshold for the apparent longevity benefits from having smaller body size.



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