According to a new study by Prof Timothy Hatton from the University of Essex and the Australian National University in Canberra, the average height of European men grew by an unprecedented 4.3 inches (11 cm) from the mid-19th century to 1980.
The study, reported in the journal Oxford Economic Papers, also reveals that average height actually accelerated in the period spanning the two World Wars and the Great Depression.
Prof Hatton examined and analyzed a new dataset for the average height at the age of around 21 of adult male birth cohorts, from the 1870s to 1980, in 15 European countries. The data were drawn from a variety of sources. For the most recent decades the data were mainly taken from height-by-age in cross sectional surveys.
Meanwhile, observations for the earlier years were based on data for the heights of military conscripts and recruits. The data is for men only as the historical evidence for women’s heights is severely limited.
“Increases in human stature are a key indicator of improvements in the average health of populations. 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,” Prof Hatton explained.
In northern and middle European countries including Britain and Ireland, the Scandinavian countries, Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, and Germany there was a ‘distinct quickening’ in the pace of advance in the period 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. One possible reason, alongside the crucial decline in infant mortality, for the rapid growth of average male height in this period was that there was a strong downward trend in fertility at the time, and smaller family sizes have already been linked with increasing height.
Other factors in the increase in average male height include an increased income per capita; more sanitary housing and living conditions; better general education about health and nutrition (which led to better care for children and young people within the home); and better social services and health systems.
Bibliographic information: Timothy J. Hatton. How have Europeans grown so tall? Oxf. Econ. Pap., published online September 1, 2013; doi: 10.1093/oep/gpt030