Loss of height linked to breathlessness in elderly

NEW YORK Fri Feb 13, 2009 7:24pm GMT

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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Among seniors, an increase in the ratio of their arm span to their height -- indicating a probable loss of height -- is strongly associated with shortness of breath and reduced lung capacity, according to a new study.

"Many physicians, who regularly care for older individuals, have suspected an association between loss of height and symptoms of shortness of breath," Dr. Maw P. Tan noted in comments to Reuters Health.

It may just be a matter of reduced space for the lungs, Tan explained. "I recall a consultant geriatrician I once worked for saying, 'I think she's just ran out of space', in response to a breathless older female patient of small stature after numerous 'normal' tests for her heart and lungs."

Arm span measurement is normally close to standing height, so Tan, from Newcastle University in the UK, and others used the arm span-to-height ratio as a measure for loss of height in a study involving 66 subjects 61 to 81 years old with a variety of disorders.

As the arm span-to-height ratio increased, lung function decreased while breathlessness increased, the researchers report in the medical journal Chest.

"The results of the study were far more profound that we expected, given the relatively small number of subjects involved," Tan said. "We postulate that this loss of height results in reduced lung volume which then results in shortness of breath."

Furthermore, they also uncovered "the possibility of ensuing cardiac complications, further highlighting the potential clinical importance of the discrepancy between arm span and standing height," the investigators note in their report.

SOURCE: Chest, February 2009.

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