Height, health and history

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America’s stature in the world is declining. I don’t mean stature in the sense of prestige. That’s another matter. I mean stature in a literal sense — height. For much of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, Americans were among the world’s tallest people. Now we have slumped to 40th tallest, a little shorter than Greeks, a little taller than Spaniards. While much of the rest of the developed world has continued to grow, Americans have been growth-arrested since about 1950.

I’ve been thinking about height because for the past few days I’ve been visiting The Netherlands, a land of giants. The Dutch are the world’s tallest people. The average man here is over 6 feet tall, the average woman almost 5 feet 8 inches. It wasn’t always that way. Since the nineteenth century, they have gone from being 4 inches shorter than Americans to 3 inches taller. What has happened?

In the 1970’s economists and historians figured out that you could learn a lot by studying people’s height. The height of particular individuals might not tell you much, but the average height of groups of people could, particularly about their health and diet.

Nobel Prize winning economist Robert Fogel and his students were among the first researchers to focus on height to indicate access to decent nutrition. In a 1974 book entitled Time on the Cross, Fogel and co-author Stanley Engerman used the height of slaves in the pre-Civil War South to argue that however brutally they were treated in other respects, slaves were adequately fed – presumably because this made them more productive field workers.  They deduced this from the fact that American-born slaves were about 3 inches taller than the African populations from which their ancestors had come.

Among poor countries, height accompanies wealth. Countries with the shortest average height are among the poorest — Madagascar, Guatemala, the Philippines. People with money can afford better food, better hygiene, and the better medical care. Poor people in poor countries eat whatever food they can afford, live in squalor, are often sick, and don’t even dream of regular medical care.

However, the United States has been consistently one of the wealthiest countries in the world since the end of World War II. So why has our growth not kept up with the rest of the developed world?

People typically have three growth spurts, one as infants, another between about 6 and 8 years of age, and a third around the time of puberty. That first infantile growth spurt will be affected by a mother’s health both before and after her baby is born, her ability to provide clean, nutritious food, and how commonly the child is ill. Americans overall don’t fare well in the infant growth business, likely because many people lack access to high quality prenatal and postnatal medical care. Evidence of this is that America has among the highest infant mortality rates in the developed world. In fact, we rank about the same – 40ish — in infant mortality rate as we do in height. The Dutch on the other hand claim to have the best pre- and postnatal care anywhere – and it’s free to everyone. Their babies grow faster than ours and die at about half the rate that American babies do.

The teenage growth spurt is thought to be largely a function of good nutrition. Americans lag in this growth period too compared to the Dutch and other tall countries. My take on this is what I call potato chip stunting — or as height researcher Richard Steckel puts it “snack foods crowd out fruits and vegetables” in the American teenager’s diet. Be that as it may, it is hard to attribute Dutch height to the high quality of their diet as I’ve noticed that one of the most popular foods here seems to be French fries served with gobs of mayonnaise.

No matter why the Dutch are so tall, it has certain benefits even for the rest of us. One of these is that due to the exceptional height of their customers, KLM the Dutch airline has been forced to add a couple of extra inches of leg room to the average airplane seat. That is a welcome treat on a trip to Europe — even to average-size Americans. 

Steven Austad is Chair of the Biology Department at UAB.  Before becoming a research scientist, he had various lives as an English major, a newspaper reporter, a New York City taxi driver, and a Hollywood wild animal trainer.  Living now in Birmingham with his veterinarian wife, 6 dogs, 2 parrots, and a cat, his column posts every other Saturday morning on AL.com.

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