Brett Smith for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Using data from health surveys and military registries, a University of Essex researcher has found that the average height of European men has grown 4.3 inches from the early 1870s to 1980, according to a new report in the journal Oxford Economic Papers.
Timothy Hatton, a professor of economics at Essex, said the development was probably the result of an overall improvement in population health, particularly the drop in the infant mortality rate.
“Increases in human stature are a key indicator of improvements in the average health of populations,” Hatton said. “The evidence suggests that the improving disease environment, as reflected in the fall in infant mortality, is the single most important factor driving the increase in height. The link between infant mortality and height has already been demonstrated by a number of studies.”
While genetics are commonly thought to be the major determining factor for height in a population, Hatton said in his report that genes “cannot account for substantial increases in mean stature over four or five generations.”
Using data collected from hundreds of thousands of European men, Hatton found that British men’s average height at age 21 grew from 5 feet 5 inches between 1871 and 1875 to 5 feet 10 inches between 1971 and 1975. In Sweden, men’s average height increased from just below 5 feet 7 inches to nearly 5 feet 11 inches in the same period.
The report noted a “distinct quickening” in the pace of height growth during the years spanning the two World Wars and the Great Depression.
“This is striking because the period largely predates the wide implementation of major breakthroughs in modern medicine and national health services,” the report said.
Hatton theorized that a falling rate of respiratory diseases or other illnesses, which caused many infant deaths, would mean less exposure to development-stunting pathogens. He also said that family sizes have shrunk over the years – meaning that there was more food and other resources available for growing children.
The study also found a sharp increase in the heights of men in southern Europe during the years following World War II. Hatton theorized that people living in these countries experienced significant income growth and took on some of the healthy habits of their northern counterparts.
In discussing the results of the study with BBC News, John Middleton of the UK’s Faculty of Public Health said he agreed with Hatton’s findings and theories.
“Does how tall we are really tell us how healthy we are? This interesting research suggests that it’s certainly a factor,” Middleton said. “Increasing height is a reflection of how the availability of food and nutrition had broadly improved until the recent excesses of fat and sugar.”
“However, we can’t conclude that shorter men are somehow unhealthier,” he continued. “Like a lot of research, this paper prompts more questions than it set out to answer.”
“While our average height is a useful barometer to bear in mind, what we really need is to tackle the many reasons for poor health that we can address,” Middleton concluded.