Sunday, July 29, 2007


This summer, average height data again confirmed a rather interesting trend. The United States is no longer the tallest country in the world, and is steadily losing ground. The average American's height is 5'9" for men and 5'4" for women. The tallest country in the world is Holland, where the men average 6'0" and the women 5'7". Since the 1950s, American height has plateaued while other countries' height has continued to rise and surpass our own. This trend is troubling because the most likely cause is some shortcoming in the way we nurture our children.

In reading about this further, I found this fascinating article on the phenomenon. Burkhard Bilger reports on the research of 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 the heights of nations.

His research shows that the height of a society is a strong indicator of its health. Throughout history, whenever a society improved its nutrition and general health, its height also grew. One of the things I found most interesting about this is that outside probably the African Pygmies, any population can grow as tall as any other. That means that any difference in average height between say Asians, Scandinavians, Americans, or Mexicans is attributable largely to their diet. While genetics still plays a factor in height differences within population groups, their composite averages are an indicator of their composite well-being.

This leaves us with the question, how could the wealthiest country in the world, during the most robust economic expansion in its history, simply stop growing?


pepperdeaf said...


Chairman said...

Why is some way in how we raise our children the most obvious cause?

I blame immigration. If you have an influx of poor, short people, you're going to have a generation of people that are poor and short. A quick look in the back of your favorite restaurant will probably reveal a number of short Hispanic dudes, many of whom were not there a couple generations ago. Once we close our borders and start deporting short people, we'll catch right back up.


Westy said...

I blame immigration.
Do you think we have more immigration now than around 1900 when our height rate of increase was high?
Also note that Bilger discusses this in his article.

Greg said...

One thing that I've yet to see mentioned is, theoretically, what happens if a country starts to do a better job of caring for its poor, disabled, and disadvantaged? What could we expect the data to look like then?

Chairman said...

Dang it - I replied to this yesterday, but I guess that it didn't save my comment.

Basically, in brief:

Immigrants are short and don't assimilate. We have more immigrants that Europe, and we continue to have more immigrants coming in than Europe. The immigrants that come here tend to stay amongst themselves, and maintain traditional habits. Hence, we are going to be shorter than Europe.

Note, the Bilger article's view on the impact of immigration is incomplete, at best, and perhaps disingenuous. The effect of the Mayans that he mentions may be as much as .1" on the overall average, and depending on how many children they have, even more.

As far as wealth goes, wealth only matters when you don't have enough of it to be appropriate nutrition. After that, it's largely irrelevant. Note, this finding is the common for a variety of areas such as intelligence or happiness. Essentially, if you can afford to pay for basic needs to accomplish whatever, then you're OK. After that, wealth doesn't really help you that much, and can even hurt.


Westy said...

Hmm, related?

Chairman said...

Great question. You have to factor out a lot of things to get to "healthiness" of the individuals in a nation. Making it more confusing, the aggregate of that can easily be a different result than the "healthiness" of a nation. People will argue over what factors go into it.

My best guess: after you factor out non-health related issues (violent deaths, industrial accidents, non-systematic infant mortality, maybe some others up for debate), then you'd start to narrow things down. I believe that most arguments that I see for gun control argue that we're a more violent nation than most nations in developed Europe and Asia. That suggests that our life expectancy is artifically depressed.

Perhaps a better measure is life expectancy, given a health-related death. Which may be hard to actually conceptualize. Maybe life expectancy, given that you live at least 35 years?


Westy said...

And herein lies the rub:
Healthiness, and thus height, has a correlation with intelligence.