The World's Tallest Woman Dies: The Debilitating Health Effects of Gigantism

The "World's Tallest Woman"--who stood at 7'7" tall--passed away this week in her native China.  The former basketball player and Guinness World Record holder was only 40 years old when she passed.  You can read the Discovery News article about Yao Defen here.

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I remembered seeing a special on TV about Yao Defen several years ago.  Aside from her incredible height, Defen also had a noticeably deeper voice than most women.  It was evident in the special that her height made many aspects of her life significantly more difficult. When I first saw the news headline prior to reading the article, I wondered...

What is it that caused her to be so tall?

The article explains that Yao Defen's condition is known as gigantism, or "an abnormally large growth due to an excess of growth hormone during childhood, before the bone growth plates have closed" as defined by the NIH.  It is believed that Defen's gigantism was caused by a tumor on her pituitary gland.  It can usually be detected by an MRI showing the pituitary gland, however the most likely way of detecting the gigantism is by way of its many symptoms.  Aside from a person's large stature, other symptoms of gigantism include delayed puberty, large extremities, irregular periods in women and hardening of facial features.

The Department of Neurological Surgery at The University of Pittsburgh explains that the pituitary gland, which is about the size of a pea and is found between one's optic nerves.  It controls our hormone functions in our body which range from temperature to growth.   A tumor on the gland could result in an abundance of growth hormone production, which would lead to gigantism (as explained in the NIH article).

A better look at the pituitary gland
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Are there any ways to treat gigantism?  

There are, but it mainly depends on the tumor.  The NIH description of gigantism cites surgery (to remove the tumor on the pituitary gland) as an option.  However, depending on the tumor, this is not always a viable means of addressing the disorder.  Take for example this Nevada woman who suffers from gigantism like Yao Defen.  Tanya Angus, who stands at 6'11", was hoping that brain surgery would be able to save her life until her doctors told her that the procedure itself might be too risky.  She is expected to live to her mid-30s.

What about gigantism may have caused Yao Defen's death?

The media has not released any kind of official cause of death for the World's Tallest Woman. However, the article about Tanya Angus gives good insight as to the many health affects of gigantism that may have led to Defen's passing.  

A person who suffers from gigantism endures, not only increased height, but the growth of their bodily organs, whether it be lungs or kidneys.  This increase in size is very stressful on the person's joints and spine and can often lead to arthritis.  Tanya Angus takes medication every day for gigantism, mainly to help her deal with the excruciating pain.  It can also cause diabetes in some patients.

Overall, Yao Defen's death is tragic considering her young age and difficult life dealing with such a disorder.  The fact that pituitary gland issues are not as rare as one might thing (the ABC News article states that "one out of five people suffer from a pituitary or hormonal disorder") gives me some hope that perhaps better treatments for gigantism and similar condition can be developed in the future.


It's a shame that it is like a disease. Short people want to be taller. Even tall people sometimes want to be taller. This disease of being Gigantic is something that no one wants. People will stare at you and give you funny looks. Not only that, but you are assured that your life will be 1/2 as long as an average size human.

As I was reading your article, it hit me how many diseases are still incurable. It is shocking how a young woman can suffer from a growing organs and constant pain in her youth age. It seems like gigantism have been there since long time ago. However, because the tumor settled down in the brain area, it has been making no improvement. I wanted to know if there was any government support to her. I read an article about her and there was an excerpt from her interview. It said "'I am very unhappy. Why am I this tall?' she is quoted as saying in a video from three years ago, the AP reported. 'If I were not this tall, others would not look at me like this.'"

Let's make sure we bow our heads for my favorite giant, Andre the Giant. You might remember his amazing role in The Princess bride as Fezzik He died in his sleep due to congestive heart failure; he was 46 and 7 feet 4 inches tall. Interestingly enough he lived 6 years longer but was 3 inches shorter.

This reminded me of a similar situation in college basketball player. Based on the NCAA's records, Kenny George is apparently the tallest player ever at 7'9". He was a YouTube legend when he played back in 2008. At such an enormous height, he said his body literally just would not stop growing. I couldn't find anything that documented the fact that he had Gigantism, but based on his stature, I wouldn't be surprised if he also suffered from this condition. Watching him play, he wouldn't even have to jump to dunk the ball. Unfortunately, since he was so big, he could barely run up and down the court, and would sometimes have to stay on one end of the court to avoid fatiguing too quickly. Sadly, his career was cut short in 2008 when he had to undergo surgery to partially amputate his right foot. When I first heard this I thought it was a ridiculous attempt to shorten George, but he actually obtained a bacterial infection forcing the amputation. Considering he could barely run up and down the court I doubt his future of a professional career was unlikely, but like you said, it is sad to see this 'burden' of being too tall ruin lives.

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