People of shorter stature face an increased risk of having heart disease, and it may in part come from their genetic makeup, a new study suggests.

That's the result of a study by an international consortium of investigators, a finding that surprised the researchers who had thought the very notion of a person's height having a relationship to their risk of heart problems was unlikely despite a fair amount of anecdotal evidence and some studies.

A variety of genes that influence whether a person is tall or short seem to be involved in the higher risk of coronary artery disease, a condition in which plaque builds up in the arteries and constricts blood supply to the heart, the researchers report in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Heart disease is the most common cause of death around the world.

Analyzing data on more than 65,000 people who have coronary artery disease against 128,000 who did not, researchers say they determined that for every 2.5-inch increase a person has in their height, their risk for developing coronary artery disease was decreased by 13.5 percent.

The findings highlighted the fact that "the causes of this common disease are very complex," says study researcher and cardiologist Dr. Nilesh Samani of the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom. He notes that lifestyle factors such as smoking — long associated with heart disease — might now have to be considered alongside a person's height in assessing their disease risk.

The study's finding of a link between height and heart disease was only in men, the researchers acknowledge, although they point out there were fewer women in the study than men, which may have prevented the researchers from making a statistically valid finding for women.

Although short stature and heart disease risk have been linked in previous research, it was never known whether the link was a direct one or due to other factors that might affect a person's height as they were growing up, such as malnutrition.

The new study suggests that the link, if not direct, is certainly stronger than may have been believed before, says Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director of the British Heart Foundation, which funded the study.

"By using the power of very-large-scale genetic studies, this research is the first to show that the known association between increased height and a lower risk of coronary heart disease is at least in part due to genetics, rather than purely down to nutrition or lifestyle factors," he says.

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