Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Why Are Europeans Growing Taller and Americans Are Not.

A historical view of how the height of people in different countries at different times in history can give us an overall picture of health.

Even though America is still a wealthy country, the growing disparity between rich and poor, and the lack of health care insurance is affecting our population's ability to care for the health of all of it's citizens.

The average height of Americans has not increased for the last few decades, as it has in most other industrialized countries.

Americans used to stand tall as the people with the highest average height in the world. However, since the middle of this century, several Scandinavian countries have moved ahead and now have taller citizens on average than the United States.

America's drop from the top is important for more than just bragging rights, said Richard Steckel, a professor of economics and anthropology at Ohio State University.

Average stature is an important indicator of a country's health care, nutrition and standard of living, said Steckel, who since 1975 has studied the height of people around the world.

"One of the keys to understanding why America is falling behind other countries in terms of stature has to do with access to health care, particularly for children," he said.

"I suspect there are pockets of poverty in the United States where the lack of medical programs and nutritional programs may be factors in poor health, and the reason some people aren't

growing as tall as they might."

In studies by various researchers of men born about 1950, the Norwegians and Dutch are the tallest in the world, with an average height of 178 centimeters(about 5 feet 10 inches), followed by Swedes at 177 centimeters. Americans are next at 175 centimeters (about 5 feet 9 inches).

Preliminary government research suggests that not much has changed recently, according to Steckel. "The average height of Americans has been pretty much stagnant for 25 years," he said.

But American men born in 1850 were tallest in the world, averaging 171 centimeters, compared to 169 centimeters for Norwegians, 168 for Swedes and 164 for the Dutch.

"I think the countries that have surpassed the United States have done well in reaching nearly everyone with complete health and nutrition services," said Steckel. "The success of the Scandinavian countries in health care shows up in many measures, not just height, such as mortality rates and life expectancy."

Immigration to the United States by people with shorter average heights -- such as Asians -- can't explain why other countries have moved ahead in average stature, according to Steckel. "In the past half century, the change in ethnic composition hasn't been enough to make a significant difference in the country's average height."

And while genes play an important role in determining how tall individual people grow, that doesn't negate the results of this international research. "Overall, genetic differences cancel each other out when you compare averages across most populations. So, in general, average height is accurate in assessing a nation's health status," Steckel said.

Steckel said he first began investigating stature as an alternative way to measure the standard of living -- a traditional area of research for economists.

Most economists have used measures of national income, such as Gross National Product, to examine living standards.

Research has shown that average height is significantly associated with a country's per capita income. But studying height has some advantages, Steckel said. For example, researchers have records of average height that go further back in history than do records of national income. Height also tells a slightly different story about the standard of living because it measures consumption of basic necessities, rather than output. Moreover, because growth occurs mostly in childhood, it allows researchers to look at how resources are allocated within families.

"Studying height captures some things about the standard of living that income leaves out," Steckel said. "Economists need to take a multiple approach to studying the standard of living."

Steckel summarized research by himself and others on stature and standard of living in a recent issue of the Journal of Economic Literature.


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