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The long and short of health

At the risk of being thought totally deranged, I'm going to suggest if you want to be healthier, you will need to get taller. Actually, this is not my idea, it's a concept touted in a recent article in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, "The Fat and Short of It" written by Daniel Engbar, an editor with the online magazine Slate http://slate.com/.

He has written other things on this topic. For example, "Glutton Intolerance: What if the War on Obesity Only Makes the Problem Worse?"

Engbar claims "stature is a crude measure of public health." Height is tied to genetics of course, but tallness (or lack thereof) has links to other issues such as whether you were breastfed, what kind of environment you lived in as a child, your nutritional intake, the amount of stress you have in your life — and poverty.

Engram believes being overweight is also a matter of being "underheight." If you are just over five feet tall and your clothes are snug around a slightly-bulging waistline, you might want to keep reading. Did you know the shorter you are, the more likely you'll develop coronary artery disease, diabetes — even have a stroke? It does not seem fair — but it is true.

I think the best message I can send to every older adult who is still reading sounds like this: If you are "underheight" you cannot do a lot about that. Except this- — you must become even more vigilant about making healthy life choices as you continue to age.

You probably already know that. Maybe right now you're even reacting a bit indignantly because I don't appear to recognize you've been trying to do that all your life. But I do — really.

How well has it worked for you?

I am starting to think that all the energy we apply to "losing weight" could be better applied to "maintaining" current weight. It might be easier than we think—perhaps it's as simple as fewer cookies and more veggies. We might want to re-think how much calcium-rich food we get too (For me that involves more low-fat yogurt and less "double-chocolate thrust" ice cream. Sigh). But I digress — sort of.

My real point is the irrationality of trying to make someone taller calls the question on the possible implausibility of trying to make someone less fat. How many people do you know who have, as older adults, successfully lost significant amounts of weight and maintained that weight loss over time? Those that do should be heralded from the rooftops — it is a really difficult task. I can think of three people I know who are in that category right now and they are all — yes, it's true, on the tall side.

Changes in body size follow a slow pattern over the years. As the Times article states, "Every year we lose a tiny bit of height and gain a pound or two of weight until in our older years, we shrink in both measurements." That's our reality. It is what it is.

So, help yourself — to a carrot stick dipped in a little herb-enhanced, non-fat yogurt.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.