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Gigantism And Acromegaly Explained: Why Taller People Can Die Earlier Than Most

My mind wanders at times during my nightly dose of SportsCenter or a New York Knicks game. Call it a morbid curiosity, but I think to myself, “are some of my favorite athletes destined to die early due to the very same physical attribute that helped them become a professional athlete in the first place?”

It’s a pretty macabre frame of mind to have while watching my favorite basketball team drop the ball in yet another heartbreaking fourth-quarter loss that resulted from a lack of offense down the stretch (then again, maybe that’s what prompts these thoughts). But then I remember that some of the tallest players in NBA history, including Gheorghe Muresan (7 feet 7 inches) and Yao Ming (7 feet 6 inches), are still alive and well. Manute Bol, standing at 7 feet 7 inches, is just as tall as Muresan, and both are considered the tallest players in NBA history. Bol, however, died at 47 years old from acute kidney failure and complications tied to Steven-Johnson syndrome — a rare skin disorder that was in no way related to his height.
At 7 feet 3 inches, Kristaps Porzingis is one of the four tallest active NBA players. He’s also my favorite player, so, in his honor, I decided to find out why tall people tend to die sooner.

Gigantism And Acromegaly

Another unbelievably tall man was André René Roussimoff, but you may know him as André the Giant. Unlike Bol, Roussimoff died at 46 years old because of his height. Although he was only 7 feet 4 inches — smaller than Muresan, Bradley, and Ming — he suffered from gigantism at an early age, and eventually went on to develop acromegaly.

Gigantism and acromegaly are not the same disease, but they develop from the same region in the body, the pituitary gland. In children, gigantism occurs when this gland, located near the brain, produces an excessive amount of growth hormone (GH), which triggers bones to grow in length at the growth plates, and causes subsequent, abnormal growth spurts. Acromegaly is rare, and only occurs in adulthood. It’s also characterized by the overproduction of GH; however, because growth plates fuse after puberty, it is not associated with increases in height. In both conditions, the overproduction of GH is due to a benign tumor that grows on the pituitary gland.

Both diseases are treatable. In fact, four years ago, doctors at the University of Virginia Medical Center successfully stopped acromegaly patient Sultan Kosen — the world’s tallest living man, standing at 8 feet 3 inches — from growing with a novel form of radiation therapy, known as Gamma Knife radiosurgery. Other treatments include surgery to remove the tumor or administering medications that reduce GH production.

Unfortunately, identifying acromegaly is no walk in the park; the most common symptom for both conditions is abnormally large hands or feet, which can often be mistaken for swelling. Other symptoms, like increasingly apparent facial features (thickened lips and protruding brows, for example), don’t appear until the diseases have progressed. For this reason, many people with the hormonal disorder fail to receive proper treatment, and end up suffering from one of its many complications, such as arthritis, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, or cancer.

It’s these complications tied to acromegaly that are often the cause of premature death (about 10 years earlier). In fact, one study found “around 60 percent of acromegalic patients die from cardiovascular disease, 25 percent from respiratory causes, and 15 percent from neoplasias,” or tumors. Such was the case for Roussimoff, whose official cause of death was listed as heart failure.

Tall People Without Gigantism Or Acromegaly

Despite Porzingis not having either disease, my concern for his health persists because research has shown even tall people without the diseases face similar health risks. Specifically, research has shown that cross country skiers are an average 6 inches shorter than basketball players, and that they tend to live seven years longer. Centenarian Japanese people are even an average 4 inches shorter than those who reach 75, Slate reported.

Height is attributed to a bevy of different complications, the most notable of which is cancer. A recent study from the Karolinska Institute and the University of Stockholm showed that height is an immutable risk factor for cancer. After looking at data for 5.5 million men and women living in Sweden between 1938 and 1991, researchers found that for every four-inch bump in height, overall cancer risk rose 18 percent in women and 11 percent in men. Meanwhile, a similar study conducted by researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine found that tall postmenopausal women have a 13 percent higher cancer risk compared to their shorter counterparts.

Being taller is ideal in many Western cultures, especially for men. But most people don’t realize that our height also affects the number of cells in our bodies, as well as the size of our organs. And this can have a tremendous effect on our health; having more cells increases a person’s chances of receiving a cancer diagnosis. The case against having larger organs continues — a larger heart, also known as cardiomegaly, is a condition that can lead to various complications, including heart failure, blood clots, and sudden death. Taller people also face a higher chance of respiratory illness, possibly because their lungs aren’t able to function as efficiently.

While this might concern any tall people reading this, the fact remains there’s nothing we can do about our height. We can’t stop ourselves from growing, so there’s no point in worrying about how our height will affect our mortality. That said, next time you find yourself sulking because you’re the shortest member of your crew, remember that being the last to feel rainfall could also mean you’ll be the last to kick the bucket.