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Harvard Commentaries
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Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School


Medical Myths Medical Myths
 

Can Coffee Really Stunt Your Growth?


May 09, 2012

By Robert H. Shmerling M.D.

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Few foods or drinks have been as well studied as coffee. Research has looked at coffee's possible connection to cancer, infertility, heart disease and a host of other problems (more on some of these later).

But, did you ever hear that coffee might stunt your growth? Apparently, it's a common belief.

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Separating Truth from Fiction

There is no scientifically valid evidence to suggest that coffee can stunt a person's growth.

This idea may have come from the misconception that coffee causes osteoporosis (a condition that may be associated with loss of height).

But blaming coffee for height loss due to osteoporosis is faulty for at least two reasons:

  1. Coffee does not cause osteoporosis.
  2. Osteoporosis does not routinely make you short.

The other problem with the "coffee stunts your growth" theory is that most growth occurs well before most people are drinking coffee regularly. By the time we're in our teens, most people have almost reached their full height. For girls, this is usually by age 15 to 17; for boys, it's a bit later. You can't "undo" bone growth once it's complete.

Decades ago, studies reported that coffee drinkers might have an increased risk of osteoporosis. It was suggested that:

  • Caffeine can increase the body's elimination of calcium.
  • Lack of calcium can contribute to osteoporosis.

Naturally, this attracted lots of attention and concern. After all, there are millions of coffee drinkers, so presumably all of them could be at risk. But the effect of caffeine on calcium excretion is small. And the link between coffee consumption and osteoporosis was never confirmed.

Causes of Height Loss

Osteoporosis with compression fractures can reduce an adult's height. But you can also lose height without osteoporosis.

The discs above and below most of the spinal bones (vertebrae) contain water. They lose water with age, so they can degenerate and compress a bit. If enough discs are affected, you can lose a measureable amount of height over time.

Curvature of the spine (scoliosis) or bending of the spine forward (kyphosis) can also lead to height loss. The most common causes of scoliosis and kyphosis include osteoporosis (in adults) and developmental abnormalities (in kids).

In fact, when the studies suggesting a link were analyzed, it turned out that people who drank more coffee drank less milk and other calcium-containing beverages. So it was probably the dietary intake of calcium and vitamin D among coffee drinkers, not the coffee, that increased the risk of osteoporosis.

For anyone concerned about the effect of coffee consumption on bone health, getting more calcium and vitamin D through diet or supplements could easily fix this.

And while it's true that people who have osteoporosis of the spine can lose height (and often have curved spines), it's the fractures, not the osteoporosis itself, that lead to height loss.

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The Risks and Benefits of Coffee

Many studies have failed to identify serious medical risks associated with coffee drinking. Coffee can cause insomnia, a jittery feeling and a slight (and temporary) elevation in blood pressure in some people.

Excessive coffee consumption (six or more cups per day) has been associated with reduced fertility and miscarriage (although definitive studies are not available). In addition, caffeine withdrawal is a common cause of headaches, and can make heartburn due to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) worse.

But most coffee drinkers have no bothersome side effects. And many studies have "cleared" coffee as a cause of serious disease, including cancer and heart disease. In fact, research has linked coffee consumption to several health benefits, including reduced risks of:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Abnormal heart rhythms
  • Stroke
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Liver disease
  • Certain cancers (especially liver cancer)
  • Gout

Caffeine can also briefly enhance athletic performance and promote weight loss. (By the way, many competitive sports ban excessive caffeine intake by athletes.)

Some of these potential benefits may not just be related to caffeine. For example, maybe coffee drinkers have healthier lifestyles than non-coffee drinkers. If true, those lifestyle differences, not the coffee, could account for the lower risk of certain diseases.

Just as the "link" between coffee and osteoporosis turned out to have another explanation, these potential health benefits could turn out to be unrelated to coffee.

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The Bottom Line

Whether or not coffee turns out to have significant health benefits, this popular beverage doesn't stunt your growth. Your height is largely determined by the height of your parents and the quality of your diet and overall health while growing. If you eat a balanced diet and take measures to avoid osteoporosis, you're likely to achieve the maximum height "allowed" by your genes. And, sorry: Just as drinking coffee won't make you shorter, avoiding it won't make you any taller.

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Robert H. Shmerling, M.D. is associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and associate professor at Harvard Medical School. He has been a practicing rheumatologist for over 20 years at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He is an active teacher in the Internal Medicine Residency Program, serving as the Robinson Firm Chief. He is also a teacher in the Rheumatology Fellowship Program.

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