economics and biology: americans are losing the height race

Not only are we as a nation getting fatter, but it also appears that, in contrast to other countries, we’ve stopped growing taller. John Komlos of the University of Munich analyzed more than 200 years’ worth of data on height for the March issue of Economics and Human Biology and found that Americans were the tallest people in the world up until about World War II, but now Europeans have outpaced us. In the middle of the 19th century, for example, Americans towered over the Dutch by an average of 2 to 3 inches. Now the Dutch tower over us by the same amount. (American men currently average about 5 feet 10 inches tall, while the Dutch average 6 feet 1 inch.) Today Danes, Brits, Germans — even East Germans — are taller on average than Americans. Physical stature is considered a useful way to measure biological well-being, revealing details of upbringing, nutrition and health care, particularly during childhood and adolescence. Considering that the United States is the richest nation in the world, the finding is rather surprising. Komlos speculates in his study that the “adverse development” could be due to “the greater social inequality, an inferior health care system, and fewer social safety nets in the United States than in Western and Northern Europe.”

This news brief appeared in the Discoveries column of the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 4/20/2004.
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