Why are People so Much Taller Today than Historically?

Tilla asks: Why is it that people are much taller now than even a few decades ago?

heightOver the last century and a half or so, humans, as a group, have grown significantly taller, with men from western, industrialized countries today being on average between 3 and 7 inches (7-18 cm) taller than their counterparts in the mid-19th century. So why have humans gotten taller?

There is very strong evidence that this simply comes down to nutrition and the body’s ability to fully benefit from said nutrition via not getting certain diseases that hinder the absorption of consumed nutrients. That the environment is drastically more important than other factors, such as microevolution, is strongly indicated via looking at human height during times of relative comfort compared with times of strife.

For example, examination of skeletons over human history has shown that, while there have been peaks and valleys of average height across different cultures at different times, from the Stone Age through the beginning of the 19th century there has been little significant difference in average human height on the whole.

As for the peaks and valleys, during the Black Death (1346-1353), 60% of the European population, about 50 million people, died quite suddenly, leaving the surviving 40% and their offspring with greater access to food and less crowded living conditions; together, this contributed to fewer diseases and better nutrition, and as a result, people during the 15th and 16th centuries in Europe grew rather tall. In fact, in England, the average man was only about 1.5 inches (3.81 cm) shorter during this time compared with the average Englishman today (at about 5’9″ or 175 cm).

Seventeenth century Europe, however, was a mess, with cold winters from the Little Ice Age limiting crop production, civil war in England, Louis XIV’s expansionary aggression and the Thirty Years’ War. As a result, human health and height suffered, with the average Frenchman reaching only about 5’4″ (162 cm). (Not coincidentally why French men popularized wearing high-heels around this time, a practice that women would later adopt and men largely abandon, outside of horse riding boots.)

Faring little better during the 18th and early parts of the 19th century, many western Europeans lived in dirty, disease-ridden slums that prevented them from increasing significantly in height, with men across Europe in 1850 only reaching, on average, about 5’5″  (165 cm). Starkly marking the difference proper diet and living conditions can make here is that 19th century English students at the Sandhurst Military Academy (upper class) were on average a whopping 8.7 inches (22 cm) taller than their compatriots at the Marine Society boys (lower class).

In the United States, things were quite different, with the average man in 1850 attaining a height of about 5’7″ (170 cm). In fact, on average, people in the U.S. remained taller than their European counterparts from the Revolutionary War through World War II (with a slight dip during the second industrial revolution). It is thought that American height dominance during this period was due to having a relatively resource-rich environment, where, with the largely privately owned agriculture-based society, many had easier access to a wider variety of nutrition sources than was common in places like the UK, where a very small percentage of people owned much of the land being farmed and much higher population densities existed. (See: Why the Mass Avoidance of Some Business is Called Boycotting)

historical-median-male-heightThings began to change after WWII. In the last half century or so, the average American height has more or less remained the same, while post-war Europeans have, on the whole, sprouted like crazy. In the most extreme case, throughout the 19th century men and women of the Netherlands averaged roughly 5’5″ (166 cm) for men and 5’1″ (156 cm) for women- relatively short for their era and region of the world. Today, the tallest people in the world are found in the Netherlands, where the average man is just over 6 feet tall (183 cm) and the average woman is nearly 5’7″ (170 cm). By comparison, American men are 5’9″ (175 cm) on average, and women are 5’4″ (163 cm).

Some believe that the great strides in height made by Western Europeans over Americans can be attributed to their universal health coverage and other social policies, such as maternity services and greater parental leave allowing for better practicality of things like breastfeeding vs. formula fed and, later, more time off work providing extra time for preparing nutritious meals, rather than relying on fast-food and other quick high-calorie, low nutrition “junk” foods. Further, the so-called “over-nutrition” prevalent in the U.S., combined with lack of physical activity leading to widespread obesity, has also been noted for its negative effects on growth hormones and metabolism, limiting the ultimate adult height somewhat.

So how high will humans grow with perfect nutrition and health care? It’s generally thought the Dutch are close to the peak of average human height potential, at least based on innate genetics, and Americans and others are close to it. This is probably a good thing as the human body is not adapted well for extreme height, and those outliers who do tower over the rest of us often suffer from various pains and other debilities related to their abnormal height as they age.

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Bonus Facts:

  • While many people think Napoleon was short, by the standards and region of his day, he was actually above average in height. The myth that he was short stems primarily from the fact that he is listed as 5 feet 2 inches tall at the time of his death. However, this is 5 feet 2 inches in French units.  In modern international units, he was just shy of 5 feet 7 inches, or about two inches shorter than the average American male today.  For reference, at the time in France, the average height for an adult male was about 5 feet 5 inches in modern international units.
  • The world isn’t just catching up with America on height, it’s gaining weight with us as well. In 2014, it is estimated that 39% of adults, worldwide, were overweight, and 13%, or about 600 million, were obese. Note that these percentages are still far shy of the whopping 70.7% of American adults who are at least overweight and 37.9% who are obese.
  • Interestingly, while most people stop growing around the age of 20, it has been observed that certain malnourished communities tend to see their members continuing to grow in height throughout their twenties, though their ultimate height is still much shorter than communities where people have access to better nutrition and stop growing around 20.
  • Historically, the taller you were, the longer you’d live.  This is generally thought to be because, as noted, taller people tended to be better nourished and have avoided certain diseases. Beyond avoiding diseases, proper nutrition also allows the body to handle disease better, as well as adequate nutrition putting less stress on the body in general.
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  • J. F. Gecik

    Quoting from the article:
    “In the last half century or so, the average American height has more or less remained the same, while post-war Europeans have, on the whole, sprouted like crazy.”

    The graph, above, does not support this statement — unless it is merely a statement about the averages from the extreme starting and ending points (around 1946 and 2015). The graph actually shows that “average American height has” NOT “remained the same” since World War II, but has fluctuated greatly, zooming upward at one point, but then declining sharply since about 1980.

    Why have U.S. average heights declined precipitously during the last thirty-five years? While some plausible factors were mentioned in the article (overeating, lack of exercise, and overreliance on “junk” foods rather than “nutritious meals”) — as well as a bit of unpersuasive political propaganda (absence of “universal health coverage and other social policies”) — I think that there are at least two other major factors that were not at all mentioned by the author of the article:

    (1) The average age of people in the U.S. has increased greatly — about nine years [!] — since 1975 (for reasons too complex and controversial for me to discuss). People now live a lot longer than they used to, and people shrink a LOT as they go beyond the age of fifty! “Research from the Baltimore Longi­tudinal Study of Aging … found that women lost an average of 2 inches between the ages of 30 and 70 (and just over 3 inches by age 80). Men lost a little more than 1 inch by age 70 (and 2 inches by 80).”

    (2) There has been massive immigration, legal and illegal, into the U.S. since 1980 … and MANY of the new immigrants are from nations where the average height was/is much lower than in Europe and in the pre-1980 U.S. — namely, Mexico, Central America, and many Asian nations (especially the “Middle East” [refugees], India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Hong Kong [fleeing Red China’s takover], South Korea, and the Philippines).

    I have no doubt that these two factors have contributed greatly to the marked decline in average height in the U.S. since 1980.

    • J. F. Gecik

      Upon further reflection, I want to withdraw my uncharitable characterization (“unpersuasive political propaganda”) of the author’s positive reference to “universal health coverage and other social policies” — provided she did not intend to applaud “socialized medicine” (which has been disastrous in some nations).

      Having “universal health coverage” is a worthy goal, provided that (1) it is not forced on citizens that do not want it … and provided that (2) it is not managed by a socialist federal government.

      • Demarke

        I agree with both your posts whole-heartedly, I think the logic behind both makes sense.

        Also, I came across an interesting counterpoint to this article (http://hubpages.com/education/Myths-and-misconceptions-about-history-people-were-shorter-back-then). It makes an argument essentially that height has increased, but not nearly as much as people might think.

        My take is that I think height probably has increased a few inches in western countries the last few hundred years. But one good take away that made sense was in the comments of the above site. How often do you hear people say “look how low the doorways and ceilings are on these old houses, think about how short people used to be!”? You go around a lot of old houses in New York, Boston, etc. and it seems to make sense, until you realize it was more to do with the weather. Shorter ceilings and doorways retains heat better in the North, but if you go to Charleston or Savannah you will find 12-18 foot ceilings because it was hotter and heat rises (obviously not because giants lived there).

        • Zetetic

          I would like to see a comparison of ceiling heights in residential dwellings between northern and southern homes owned by people of comparable economic status. I suspect the differences noted have as much to do with the ability of some to afford homes with 12 to 18 foot ceilings as with climate.

  • Wormwood

    “Historically, the taller you were, the longer you’d live. ”

    This statement is attributed to what source(s)?

    All current records for human longevity indicate that the reverse is true.

  • Lenny Nurdbol

    This doesn’t take into account giganticism in ancient times…
    There were races of humans well Over 6′ in height thousands of years ago…

  • SoapyKitten

    Obviously, the writer of this article has not used their noodle. And by noodle I mean His noodly appendage. It has been shown within The Gospel of The Flying Spaghetti Monster that man’s height growth is directly because of there not being enough noodles to go around and man has grown out of the FSM’s (pesto be upon him) control! Please keep this in mind! R’Amen