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DR MAX THE MIND DOCTOR: It’s not a tall story – height can be bad for your health 

Whenever I’m doing a routine physical examination and check a patient’s height, I’m always bemused by how interested they are in the result.

No one seems to care what their blood pressure or pulse rate is, but everyone wants to know their exact height (which they must have a pretty good idea of anyway). And they are almost always disappointed. ‘Oh, I thought I was taller’ they’ll say. Often, they’ll ask me to double check. I’ve never had someone think they were shorter.

We all tend to exaggerate our height, convincing ourselves and others that we are taller than we really are. But why? At 6ft 1in, I’m relatively tall so it’s easy for me to be dismissive of height issues. However, as a society we value height.

Research shows that taller people tend to have higher self-esteem and self-confidence, while a study of Swedish men found that shorter individuals are more at risk of low mood and suicide.

Height appears to confer certain social benefits, too. Taller people are more likely to go into higher education, for example. It holds true even when short and tall people are matched for IQ, suggesting that there must be some unconscious bias at work when they are being selected.

This is borne out by the fact that people who are over 6ft earn on average £100,000 more over a 30-year career compared to shorter people. American studies even show that taller presidents stand a better chance of being re-elected than shorter ones.

Doubtless these advantages stem in part from the pervasive tendency to associate height with power. It is embedded in our language: we look up to people we consider superior, for example, or look down on those who are inferior.

We therefore want to believe we are taller than we really are because this means we have more authority. In fact, this seems to be hard-wired into our brains. In one clever experiment using virtual reality headsets, participants took two ‘virtual’ rides on a Tube train.

They experienced the first journey at their normal height. On the second journey — and without them knowing — the headset was programmed to make them feel shorter in relation to the carriage and other passengers.

When asked how they felt on each journey, the participants reported that they were aware of increased feelings of inferiority, weakness and incompetence on the second journey.

They also felt more intimidated by other passengers. This suggests that we have evolved to assume those who are taller are stronger and more of a threat.

There is a reason for my musings about the psychology of height this week. For once there is some good news for those of smaller stature. People who are over 6ft tall have more than double the chance of catching Covid-19, according to research published by data experts led by a team from Oxford University.

The researchers said the findings do not necessarily mean tall people are genetically more vulnerable to the infection. Instead, they believe the results indicate Covid-19 spreads through tiny particles called aerosols that linger in the air after being exhaled. (Tall people would be at no greater risk if the virus was mainly spread through sneezing or coughing, which produce larger droplets that fall to the ground quickly.)

Public health experts have so far ruled out that Covid-19 is airborne, but the World Health Organisation is reviewing ‘emerging evidence’ to the contrary. Whatever your height, though, you should always walk tall and don’t let the lack of inches determine how you feel about yourself.

But if you do wish you were taller then here’s a tip: always measure yourself in the morning — we are taller when we first wake up because, during the course of the day, gravity compresses our spine and we shrink!

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If everyone who is overweight loses 5lb, it would save the NHS more than £100 million over the next five years, according to Health Secretary Matt Hancock. Imagine what we could do with that money?

We could treat every single cataract in the country. We could do every single knee and hip replacement. And that would just be the start. Treating obesity eats up half the entire NHS budget, so what if, rather than just 5lb, everyone who was overweight got their weight to within a healthy range. We could effectively double what the NHS has to spend. That would be incredible — and we have the power to make that happen.

Would you take a test to learn if you are at risk of an incurable disease later in life? Scientists have developed a blood test that they say can identify Alzheimer’s disease at the earliest stage.

The test looks for tiny fragments of a protein that appears in the brains of people with dementia, which start to circulate in the blood up to 20 years before the onset of symptoms.

No doubt that this is a great, scientific discovery. Some experts, however, have raised concerns about the ethics of telling someone they’re likely to develop the disease.

Personally, I wouldn’t take such a test. Why discover something that will cast a permanent shadow over your life, and about which there is nothing you can do?

Every mistake you made, every time you forgot someone’s name or went into a room and couldn’t remember why — you’d be torturing yourself it was a sign dementia was setting in.

It reminds me of a line in the poem by the celebrated poet Thomas Gray: ‘Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.’

Under plans announced this week, health and social care budgets could be merged. This is a brilliant proposal.

The distinction between health and social care is completely arbitrary and causes all sorts of problems. It works against joined-up thinking and prevents treating patients holistically — with both their health and social needs catered for.

Currently, the NHS tries to protect its own budget by discharging patients to social care. But when health problems emerge, the only option is to try to have the patients re-admitted to hospital.

Hopefully, a merger will put an end to this pass-the-patient game. I am also in favour of mental health and general health trusts merging for the same reason. There’s no reason why the two should be treated separately — it just creates more division and bureaucracy.

But sad to say that in the NHS there’s a belief — and some doctors are guilty, too — that mental health isn’t ‘proper’ medicine, that the patients aren’t really sick. Consequently, their physical health needs are routinely ignored. Yet someone with schizophrenia, for example, dies on average 25 years earlier than those who do not have it.

By having separate trusts, we help maintain that stigma around mental illness. And provision of mental health is costly and resource heavy, meaning that many of these trusts are in debt.

In recent years there’s been talk of ‘parity of esteem’ — that mental health should be treated the same as physical health. Merging mental and general health trusts would be a quick and easy step towards this.

Dr Max prescribes… 

While England has struggled to contain rising levels of knife and gun crime, Scotland has dramatically reduced such offences in the past 15 years. Journalist and trainee child psychotherapist Kate Silverton presents this fascinating insight into Scotland’s Violence Reduction Unit, which has adopted a radical approach. 

Violent crime is treated as a public health issue. This is a thought-provoking documentary on how we can tackle crime and the causes of offending. Something that our leaders south of the border should take a note of. Available on BBC iPlayer. 

Throughout this pandemic, and with increasingly tough times to come, there isn’t a lot to be optimistic about. Yet being pessimistic could actually shorten your lifespan.

According to Australian research, pessimists die two years younger than the average person. It’s not clear why negativity has such a damaging effect. 

It may be because it raises the level of the stress hormone cortisol which, in turn, increases the risk of illnesses such as stroke or heart attacks.

However, the researchers found that being an optimist doesn’t actually extend your life either! That’s not the most important thing, though.

Life is so much better when you walk on the sunny side of the street. You might not live longer if you’re an optimist, but your life will certainly be more enjoyable. And that’s all that really matters.

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