Britain’s tallest man, Neil Fingleton, died Sunday at age 36. The seven-foot-seven actor played basketball in the United States before taking on roles from Game of Thrones’ Mag the Mighty to Doctor Who, Age of Ultron, X-Men: First Class, and Jupiter Ascending, as we reported earlier this week.
The cause has not been confirmed, yet. But Fingleton is not the first person famous for his extreme height to also die extremely young.
Andre the Giant, seven-foot-four wrestler and actor, died from heart failure at age 46. Matthew McGrory, seven-foot-six actor famous for his role in Big Fish, died from heart failure at age 32. Eight-foot-eleven Robert Wadlow, the tallest man ever, died at age 22, and eight-foot-two Zeng Jinlian, the tallest woman ever, died at age 17. A quick peek at Wikipedia’s list of tallest people shows few living past the age of 50.
It’s the specific reasons that folks grow extremely tall which could play a role in their early death. Tumors on the brain’s hormone-producing, puberty-invoking pituitary gland can cause gigantism, where too much growth hormone is produced in childhood, and acromegaly, where too much growth hormone is produced once you’re fully grown. All of that extra height and growth hormone can take its toll on the heart.
“That’s the most common cause of death in these patients—heart failure,” clinical professor Alexander Vortmeyer from Indiana University explained to Gizmodo. “The heart is more stretched to supply this huge [person] with blood.”
According to one review of growth hormone disorders, the extra hormone can make hearts thicker, while keeping blood-pumping chambers the same size. Growth hormone can also get in the way of the bodies’ normal insulin function—plenty of people who produce too much growth hormone suffer from diabetes. Treatment for growth hormone disorders generally require removing or shrinking the pituitary gland tumor through surgery, medication or radiation treatment, a recommended (and not-too-risky) option that works around half the time, according to a few studies.
Taller-than-average folks, don’t worry. On its own, “being tall” isn’t enough to cause a premature death, reports Men’s Health—in fact, one study of fifteen thousand people found taller people had a decreased risk for heart disease. Other studies have reported similar findings. But these studies all slice their data in different ways. The first study considers “tall” men taller than five foot nine, for example, and many don’t tease out the specifics of what causes gigantism. There’s being taller than average, and then there’s actually suffering from an excessive height-causing abnormality, explained Vortmeyer.
There are other height-inducing diseases like Marfan syndrome, which causes problems in the body’s connective tissues and collagen, a protein found in them. Like acromegaly, you would know if someone had Marfan syndrome, though, since it comes with a distinctive body shape and appearance. Folks with this disease frequently die from blood vessels rupturing, for example.
I couldn’t find proof that Fingleton had acromegaly like Andre the Giant or McGrory, but Vortmeyer surmised that at this huge height, it’s likely he produced too much growth hormone in one way or another. So, go find a tall friend and tell them you love them today.
Update 3/1/16 8:13 AM: Nick Cooper, a close friend of Fingleton’s and owner of a big-and-tall store in the UK, tells Gizmodo that the actor did not suffer from acromegaly, and thought Dr. Vortmeyer’s conclusions were incorrect.