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Short people have lower IQs? A shortie takes umbrage

Two recent studies focus on the apparent drawbacks of being vertically challenged, but Crave's Leslie Katz, a lifelong short person herself, can't help looking down on the research.

That's me on the right, getting a little help in winter from my cousin Michael. I've long since given up wearing high-crowned hoods to be taller. Leslie Katz/CNET

As a short person, I may have a lower IQ than my taller counterparts, at least according to one recent study. But I will attempt to harness the few brain cells I do have to try to make sense of researchers' claims about vertically challenged folks and the alleged deficits we face.

Just a few weeks back, a study out of Oxford University suggested that those on the shorter side might suffer from smaller self-worth. In the most recently reported short-person study, researchers at Edinburgh University analyzed the DNA of more than 6,800 unrelated people to "estimate the genetic correlation between height and general intelligence."

"What we found was a small association between height and intelligence such that people who are taller tend to be smarter," Riccardo Marioni of the university's Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine told the Sunday Times. The study attributed 70 percent of that to genetics, and the rest to environment.

That's a mysteriously large amount of scientific attention paid to short people in the span of just a few, well, short weeks. But as someone who barely tops 5 feet and a half-inch (yes, that half-inch matters), I'm not worried one millimeter about the recent findings, and you shouldn't be either, fellow shorties.

After all, just what are we short folk supposed to do with the information that we may be genetically coded to be dimmer? Stand on our tiptoes or wear taller shoes when studying complex scientific theorems? I suppose we could play brain games such as Nintendo's Brain Age, but another study says those don't make you smarter anyway.

I'm all for constantly challenging my mind, but I want to do that out of a desire to stay as engaged as possible with the world, not because I'm afraid that losing the height lottery has put me at an intellectual disadvantage. Read the Edinburgh University study (PDF) beyond the headlines and you'll see the researchers administered four IQ-type cognitive tests measuring processing speed, verbal declarative memory, immediate and delayed recall, and verbal fluency. But they don't make any correlations between their findings and actual success in life, and anyhow, we all know intelligence to be far too complex a property, shaped by far too many factors, to be reduced to mere test scores.

Emperor Napoleon supposedly had major issues with his short stature. Don't let recent studies give you the same complex. Wikimedia Commons

So what's the point of the latest study, said to be the first of its kind to look at the correlation between height and cognitive functioning using DNA markers in unrelated people rather than twin studies and data from families? The researchers say they wanted to explore whether the apparent genetic link may determine other health outcomes -- though most headlines are touting the short-people-have-lower-IQs angle. (Men in the study, by the way stood an average of 5.77 feet, women 5.31 feet.)

"Greater height is also associated with a lower risk of a series of health outcomes including coronary heart disease, stroke, accidents, and suicide," the study says. Wait, accidents? Like falling from step stools when trying to reach top shelves? I can see how being part of a certain ethnic group can lead to life-saving awareness of key genetic proclivities, but wouldn't people of all heights want to take the same precautions when it comes to having a healthy heart, lowering the risks of strokes, and cultivating optimal mental health?

Besides, remember that it's easy to find studies suggesting that being taller could be detrimental to your health. Last year, for example, researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine reported that post-menopausal women have a higher risk of cancer with each additional inch they boast. It seems that people all along the height spectrum can find studies to worry them, if they really want something to worry about.

I've had practice being short
I first became aware of my shortness in second grade, when the teacher lined us up from tallest to shortest for class pictures, and I was last in line. To this day, I'm always positioned in the front of group pictures so as not to be blocked by the taller (though, strangely, no one has said "smarter") people. Growing up, I desperately wanted to be taller -- even reaching my sister's height of 5 foot 3 inches would have made me feel statuesque -- though now I'm not even sure why I coveted those extra inches. Time often brings self-acceptance, and I've come to appreciate my height, or lack thereof, as just one of the many characteristics that makes me myself.

Aside from having to do the movie-theater-seat shuffle to get out from behind the tall people, and often finding myself looking at necks and shoulder blades rather than the people at the podium at public events, I don't much think about being short.

Until the last couple of weeks, that is, when headlines like this circulated the Web: "You're coming up short in the IQ stakes, titch" and "Short people got no reason to live, study (kinda) says" (in all fairness to my CNET colleague Chris Matyszczyk, he was quoting the Randy Newman song there).

I might find the recent studies on short people equal parts amusing and annoying, but that doesn't mean they're worthless.

"Our hunch was that the experience (of being small) would cause people to view themselves more negatively, reducing their sense of status and self-esteem, and triggering a sense of vulnerability," the Oxford study says. Agree or not, such research highlights the indisputable truth that who we are physically can impact the way we perceive our place in the world, and thus our behavior. I can't deny that because of my height, I would feel more vulnerable in some threatening situations than I would were I the towering Brienne of Tarth from "Game of Thrones."

And from a sociological point of view, the many complex factors that probably link height to health are fascinating -- if maddening. If taller men really do earn more and have an easier time getting dates online, for example, wouldn't it stand to reason that their shorter counterparts could face a higher risk of heart disease related to stress and frustration? For that matter, which end of the height spectrum is generally considered more desirable differs for men and women, which makes generalizations more difficult.

These studies raise interesting points to ponder, but as far as I'm concerned, not to dwell on, no matter how convincing the reporting. I bet Robert Reich (4 feet 11 inches) and Ludwig Van Beethoven (5 feet 3 inches, maybe 5 feet 4 inches in 18th-century man-heels) would agree.