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Do conditions that cause short stature or dwarfism affect life expectancy, and what health issues can people with dwarfism experience?

Just how disabled are people with dwarfism, and how does dwarfism impact a person's health and life expectancy? They are questions many people are curious about, but the answers are far from straightforward. 

There are an awful lot of misconceptions around about little people or people of short stature, beginning with the idea that "dwarfism" is one single condition. It isn't. While conditions that cause dwarfing do all share one commonality —  Little People of America defines dwarfism as "a medical or genetic condition that usually results in an adult height of 4'10" or shorter" [1] — short stature can, in fact, be caused by over 200 different conditions [2]. 

These can roughly be separated into two broad categories:

  • Disproportionate short stature, in which bodily proportions differ from those of other people. 
  • Proportionate short stature, in which short stature is combined with typical bodily proportions. [3]

Achondroplasia

The most common type of so-called "short-limbed dwarfism", achondroplasia, affects around one in 15,000 to 40,000 people and accounts for 70 percent of all cases of dwarfism [1]. People with achondroplasia have shorter arms and legs, a limited range of motion in their elbows, and often especially short fingers, while their torso is typically sized. Achondroplasia is also characterized by a larger head and elongated forehead. Adult men with achondroplasia are often around 4 feet, four inches in length, while their female counterparts are an average of three inches shorter. [4]

While the average life span of people with achondroplasia is comparable with that of the general population [5], they are indeed at a higher risk of certain health conditions:

  • Hydrocephalus, in which fluid builds up around the brain, and associated increased intracranial pressure (pressure in the skull).
  • Spinal deformities
  • Bowed legs
  • Frequent ear infections and potential hearing loss. [5, 6]

A tentative diagnosis of achondroplasia can often be made during pregnancy. While couples who both have achondroplasia have a 50 percent chance of having a child with the same condition and the same holds true for couples in which one partner has achondroplasia, around 80 percent of people with achondroplasia are born to parents of typical stature. [5, 7]

Spondyloepiphyseal Dysplasia Congenita

Spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia congenita (SEDc) is a rarer form of dwarfism that affects around one in 95,000 people [1]. Growing to between three foot and just over four foot tall, people with this condition have a shortened trunk and neck as well as shorter limbs, often in combination with typically-sized hands and feet. [8] Health problems people with SEDc often deal with include:

  • Spinal deformities. 
  • Club foot. 
  • Hip joint abnormalities. 
  • A cleft palate. 
  • Severe nearsightedness
  • Hearing loss. [9]
Diagnosable during pregnancy with the help of ultrasound scans, Spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia congenita does not have an impact on a person's life expectancy. [10]

Diastrophic Dysplasia

Diastrophic dysplasia is rare, affecting around one in 110,000 people. It impacts bone and cartilage development. Besides a short stature and severely shortened arms and legs, people with diastrophic dysplasia are at risk of a cleft palate, osteoarthritis, joint deformities, hand deformities and club foot, and ear deformities. Nonetheless, most people with this condition have a normal life expectancy. [11

Other Conditions That Lead To Dwarfism 

Hundreds of other conditions — ranging from primordial dwarfism to Turner's Syndrome, Prader-Willi Syndrome, Pituitary Dwarfism, and Osteogenesis Imperfecta [12] — can lead to a short stature. Conditions that lead to short stature are so varied that some people will never get a definite diagnosis, because their exact condition is unique to them. 

Disproportionate short stature is typically caused by genetics, but that doesn't necessarily involve a (known) family history of dwarfism. Proportionate short stature can, meanwhile, also be the result of growth hormone deficiencies. [3]

Most people of short stature live full, long lives, in relatively good health. To answer another commonly asked question, short stature usually doesn't have anything to do with brain development — and little people's IQ scores are just as varied as those of anyone else. 

The individual health problems that result from different kinds of conditions that cause short stature can indeed be debilitating — and sometimes fatal. Conditions related to conditions that cause dwarfism, like spinal deformations or hearing loss, can certainly render a person disabled. Does short stature itself constitute a disability, though? There is, as Little People of America notes [1], some debate over that. There's no doubt that neither ATM machines nor typical kitchens in rented apartments are designed for little people — and that can pose a challenge. The social model of disability holds that those challenges are a result of society's failure to help people with impairments overcome them, not the result of mental, cognitive, or physical conditions themselves. [13]

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