And we thought stubby legs were just a fashion liability: Previous research has found that women with a low leg-to-height ratio have a higher risk of heart disease, breathing problems, and preeclampsia (dangerously high blood pressure during pregnancy). Now two studies suggest that short legs may be a sign that a woman is more susceptible to other health concerns. But just because you drew the short end of the stick doesn't mean you can't protect yourself.
At Johns Hopkins, scientists analyzed leg length as a percentage of total height in more than 7,000 adults. For whites and Hispanics, leg length was about 47 percent of their height on average; in non-Hispanic blacks, it was roughly 49 percent. The scientists found that as leg length dropped below average, diabetes risk rose 19 percent. In a similar study from the University of Bristol, England, researcher Abigail Fraser discovered that women whose legs were shorter than average had higher levels of liver enzymes, one of which has been linked to an increased risk of osteoporosis. (Women with longer legs had much lower levels.)
Short legs don't cause the problems: "Leg length can be a marker of poor nutrition and infections before puberty," Fraser says. "Malnutrition or serious illness can influence the development of the liver early in life, affecting its function later." Malnutrition may also explain the increased diabetes risk: Experts are uncovering a link between the rise of low-nutrition fast food in the 1960s and '70s and the fact that American adults are no longer the world's tallest people.
The risks incurred by having shorter legs can be overcome by pursuing a healthy lifestyle—exercising and eating right. The only message in this research, says Fraser, is that these people need to keep up with recommended health screenings, such as those for blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar. Next time you have to shorten a new pair of pants, consider it a friendly reminder to take care of yourself.