Could Genes Involved in Height and Weight Predict Socioeconomic Status?

office workers
Office workers take a lunch break. A new study finds genetic traits linked to height and BMI can partially determine the education and income level a person will achieve in their lifetime. REUTERS/Will Burgess

As much as we hate to admit, a person's physical appearance bears some influence on the kinds of opportunities that will present in their life. Many experts have suggested height and weight are two of the strongest indicators of education and income level, and even whether a person finds a suitable mate.

Because height and, to a certain degree, body mass index (BMI) are based on the genetic cards each of us is dealt, a group of researchers ventured to see if interpreting these variants could predict a person's success, specifically when it comes to income and education level. Their findings were published March 8 in BMJ .

For the study, researchers used data from a United KIngdom biobank on 119,669 men and women aged 37 to 73. They analyzed the samples for 400 genetic variants related to height and 70 associated with BMI. Overall, the researchers found men who were shorter and women who were more overweight due to these genetic variants earned significantly less and had lower levels of education than others in the cohort.

"Higher socioeconomic status is generally thought to cause taller stature and lower BMI owing to higher standards of nutrition in childhood," the researchers write in the study. "But there may also be effects in the opposite direction." The reason, they add, could be "discrimination against shorter and fatter people or differences in self esteem that affect employability."

If a man was three inches shorter than average and had these genetic markers he earned $2,000 less per year than taller men. Similarly, if a woman was approximately 15 pounds heavier than average and turned out to have the gene variants associated with being overweight, she earned approximately $2,000 less per year than women who were the same height but lighter.

For both men and women, being at least two inches taller than average was associated with a 1.25 increased odds of earning a degree-level education. In addition, being two and a half inches taller than average increased odds of working in more professional (and therefore higher paying) jobs.

The researchers say their study does have some limitations, since we don't all live in a genetic bubble. For example, people with higher BMI tend to have more health problems, and coping with chronic conditions such as diabetes may affect the productivity needed to excel in school and the workplace.

They say participants "may have been influenced by parental genotype-socioeconomic status associations," meaning their parents' genetic traits that determined height and BMI may have partially determined their offspring's success. Children and parents share many of the same genetic traits.

"The causal pathway could reflect parental genetic predisposition to higher BMI resulting in families moving to a more obese and lower socioeconomic status neighborhood, which in turn could lower children's socioeconomic status," the researchers write.