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The short of it: World grows taller than U.S.

Possible factors for shortfall include expensive healthcare, poor prenatal care and childhood disease.

August 05, 2007|Matt Crenson | Associated Press

NEW YORK — America used to be the tallest country in the world.

From the days of the founding fathers right on through the industrial revolution and two world wars, Americans literally towered over other nations. In a land of boundless open spaces and limitless natural abundance, the young nation transformed its increasing wealth into human growth.

But just as it has in so many other arenas, America's preeminence in height has faded. Americans reached a height plateau after World War II but gradually fell behind as the world continued growing taller.

By the time the baby boomers reached adulthood in the 1960s, most northern and western European countries had caught up with and surpassed the United States. Young adults in Japan and other prosperous Asian countries now stand nearly as tall as Americans do.

In Holland, the tallest country in the world, the typical man measures 6 feet, a good two inches more than his average American counterpart.

Compare that to 1850, when the situation was reversed. Not just the Dutch but all the nations of western Europe stood 2 1/2 inches shorter than their American brethren.

Does it really matter? Does being taller give the Dutch any advantage over, say, the Chinese (men, 5 feet 4.9; women, 5 feet 0.8) or the Brazilians (men, 5 feet 6.5; women, 5 feet 3)?

Many economists would argue that it does matter, because height is correlated with numerous measures of a population's well-being. Tall people are healthier, wealthier and live longer than short people. Some researchers have even suggested that tall people are more intelligent.

It's not that being tall actually makes you smarter, richer or healthier. It's that the same things that make you tall -- a nutritious diet, good prenatal care and a healthy childhood -- also benefit you in those other ways.

That makes height a good indicator for economists who are interested in measuring how well a nation provides for its citizens during their prime growing years. With one simple, easily collected statistic, economists can essentially measure how well a society prepares its children for life.

"This is the part of the society that usually eludes economists, because economists are usually thinking about income. And this is the part of the society that doesn't earn an income," said John Komlos, an economic historian at the University of Munich who was born in Hungary, grew up in Chicago, and has spent the last quarter-century compiling data on height in nations.

Height tells you about a segment of the population that is invisible to traditional economic statistics. Children don't have jobs or own houses. They don't buy durable goods or invest in the stock market. But obviously investments in their well-being are critical to a nation's economic future.

For several years now, Komlos and other researchers have been trying to figure out exactly why the United States fell behind. How could the wealthiest country in the world, during the most robust economic expansion in its history, simply stop growing?

"It's absolutely fascinating," said Eileen Crimmins, a demographer at USC. "Maybe we've reached the point where we're going to go backward in height."

Like many human traits, an individual's height is determined by a mix of genes and environment. Some experts put the contribution of genes at 40%, some at 70%, some even higher. But they all agree that aside from African pygmies and a few similar exceptions, most populations have about the same genetic potential for height.

That leaves environment to determine the differences in height between populations around the world, specifically the environment children experience from the moment of conception through adolescence. Any deficiency along the way -- poor prenatal care, early childhood disease, malnutrition -- can prevent a person from reaching his or her full genetic height potential.

"We know environment can affect heights by three, four, five inches," said Richard H. Steckel, an Ohio State University economist who has also done research on height trends in the United States during the 19th century.

The earliest stages of life are the most important to the human growth machine; at age 2 there is already about a 70% correlation between a child's height and his or her eventual adult stature.

All of this means a population's average height is a very sensitive indicator of its most vulnerable members' welfare.

Not surprisingly, rich countries tend to be taller simply because they have more resources to spend on feeding and caring for their children. But wealth doesn't necessarily guarantee that a society will give its children what they need to thrive.

In the Czech Republic, per capita income is barely half of what it is in the United States. Even so, Czechs are taller than Americans. So are Belgians, who collect 84% as much income as Americans.

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