eLife digest | A century of trends in adult human height

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A century of trends in adult human height

eLife digest

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People from different countries grow to different heights. This may be partly due to genetics, but most differences in height between countries have other causes. For example, children and adolescents who are malnourished, or who suffer from serious diseases, will generally be shorter as adults. This is important because taller people generally live longer, are less likely to suffer from heart disease and stroke, and taller women and their children are less likely to have complications during and after birth. Taller people may also earn more and be more successful at school. However, they are also more likely to develop some cancers.

The NCD Risk Factor Collaboration set out to find out how tall people are, on average, in every country in the world at the moment, and how this has changed over the past 100 years. The analysis revealed large differences in height between countries. The tallest men were born in the last part of the 20th century in the Netherlands, and were nearly 183 cm tall on average. The shortest women were born in 1896 in Guatemala, and were on average 140 cm tall. The difference between the shortest and tallest countries is about 20 cm for both men and women. This means there are large differences between countries in terms of nutrition and the risk of developing some diseases.

The way in which height has changed over the past 100 years also varies from country to country. Iranian men born in 1996 were around 17 cm taller than those born in 1896, and South Korean women were 20 cm taller. In other parts of the world, particularly in South Asia and parts of Africa, people are only slightly taller than 100 years ago, and in some countries people are shorter than they were 50 years ago.

There is a need to better understand why height has changed in different countries by different amounts, and use this information to improve nutrition and health across the world. It would also be valuable to understand how much becoming taller has been responsible for improved health and longevity throughout the world.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.13410.002