Monday, December 10, 2012

Does tallness cause heart disease? No, but sex does

Popular beliefs about medical issues are sometimes motivated by a statistical phenomenon known as “spurious relationship”, among other names. Two variables X and Y are influenced by a third variable C, which leads to X and Y being correlated and thus the impression that X and Y are causally associated.

Take a look at the table below, which I blogged about in a previous post (). This table shows that there is a strong unadjusted correlation between height and arterial stiffness, a marker of heart disease. The likelihood that the correlation is due to chance is lower than one tenth of a percentage point (P<.001).

Interestingly, the authors of the study even use height as a control variable to narrow down the “true” causes of arterial stiffness (column with adjusted results), assuming that height did indeed influence arterial stiffness and what they found to be a key predictor of arterial stiffness, 2-hour postprandial glucose.

But there is no convincing evidence that height causes heart disease, with exception of pathological extremes – e.g., acromegaly. Extremes tend to influence statistical results somewhat, leading to conflicting conclusions that end up being disseminated by the popular media (). This is one of the sources of popular beliefs about medical issues.

Another, more important, source are real confounders. And this takes us back to the issue of height being associated with heart disease. In fact, height will typically be significantly associated with heart disease in almost any study that includes men and women and does not control for biological sex.

One of the reasons is that women overall tend to have a significantly lower incident of heart disease than men. The other is that height is significantly lower among women than men, on average, even though there are several women who are taller than the average man.

The table above was from a study including both sexes. Therefore, the strong association between height and arterial stiffness is a “reflection” of the strong association between being male and increased arterial stiffness. If one were to add a variable coded as 0 for male and 1 for female, and use it in a multivariate analysis of predictor of arterial stiffness, together with height, the effect of height would probably “disappear”.

Biological sex is the control variable, the “confounder”, that the authors should have used to narrow down the “true” causes of arterial stiffness (second column in the table). In the absence of biological sex, controlling for height accomplished something similar, but in a “wobbly” way, leaving many readers scratching their heads in confusion.