1. Epidemiology and Global Health

Dutch men and Latvian women tallest in world according to 100-year global height study

The largest ever height study provides substantial insight into the global heights of young adult men and women between 1914 and 2014.
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Dutch men and Latvian women are the tallest on the planet, according to the largest ever study of height around the world.

The research, led by scientists from Imperial College London and using data from most countries in the world, tracked height among young adult men and women between 1914 and 2014.

Among the findings, published in the journal eLife, the research revealed South Korean women and Iranian men have shown the biggest increases in height over the past 100 years. Iranian men have increased by an average of 16.5cm, and South Korean women by 20.2cm.

The height of men and women in the UK has increased by around 11cm over the past century. By comparison, the height of men and women in the USA has increased by 6cm and 5cm, while the height of Chinese men and women has increased by around 11cm and 10cm.

The research also revealed once-tall USA had declined from third tallest men and fourth tallest women in the world in 1914 to 37th and 42nd place respectively in 2014. Overall, the top 10 tallest nations in 2014 for men and women were dominated by European countries, and featured no English-speaking nation. UK women improved from 57th to 38th place over a century, while men had improved slightly from 36th to 31st place.

The researchers also found that some countries have stopped growing over the past 30 to 40 years, despite showing initial increases in the beginning of the century of study. The USA was one of the first high-income countries to plateau, and other countries that have seen similar patterns include the UK, Finland, and Japan. By contrast, Spain and Italy and many countries in Latin America and East Asia are still increasing in height.

Furthermore, some countries, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Middle East have even seen a decline in average height over the past 30 to 40 years.

How tall we grow is strongly influenced by nutrition and environmental factors, although an individual’s genetic factors may also play a role. Children and adolescents who are better nourished and live in better environments tend to be taller, and height may even be influenced by a mother’s health and nutrition during pregnancy. It has lifelong consequences for health and even education and earnings. Some research suggests people who are taller tend to live longer, gain a better education and even earn more. However, being tall may carry some health risks, as studies have linked height to a greater risk of certain cancers including ovarian and prostate.

Professor Majid Ezzati from the School of Public Health at Imperial who led the research said: “This study gives us a picture of the health of nations over the past century, and reveals the average height of some nations may even be shrinking while others continue to grow taller. This confirms we urgently need to address children and adolescents’ environment and nutrition on a global scale, and ensure we’re giving the world’s children the best possible start in life.”

He added: “Our study also shows the English-speaking world, especially the USA, is falling behind other high-income nations in Europe and Asia Pacific. Together with the poor performance of these countries in terms of obesity, this emphasises the need for more effective policies towards healthy nutrition throughout life.”

Mary De Silva, Head of Population, Environment and Health at the Wellcome Trust, who co-funded the study, said: “This is a unique analysis that shows the real power of combining a hundred years of population data sources that span the globe. The most striking finding is that despite the huge increases in height seen in some countries, there is still a considerable gap between the shortest and tallest countries. More research is needed to understand the reasons for this gap and to help devise ways of reducing the disparities in health that still persist globally.”

The research team, which included almost 800 scientists and was in collaboration with the World Health Organization, used data from a wide range of sources, including military conscription data, health and nutrition population surveys, and epidemiological studies. They used these to generate height information for 18-year-olds in 1914 (who were born in 1896) through to 18-year-olds in 2014 (who were born in 1996).

Among the findings the team found that:

  • Dutch men are the tallest on the planet, with an average height of 182.5cm. Latvian women are the tallest on the planet, with an average height of 170cm.
  • The top four tallest countries for men are the Netherlands, Belgium, Estonia and Latvia. The top four tallest countries for women are Latvia, the Netherlands, Estonia and the Czech Republic.
  • Men from East Timor were the smallest in the world in 2014, with an average height of 160cm. Women from Guatemala were the smallest in 2014 with an average height of 149cm.
  • The difference between the tallest and shortest countries in the world in 2014 was about 23cm for men – an increase of 4cm on the height gap in 1914. The height difference between the world’s tallest and shortest countries for women has remained the same across the century, at about 20cm.
  • The height difference between men and women has on average remained largely unchanged over 100 years – the average height gap was about 11cm in 1914 and 12cm in 2014
  • The average height of young men and women has decreased by as much as 5cm in the last 40 years in some countries in Sub-Saharan Africa such as Sierra Leone, Uganda and Rwanda.
  • Australian men in 2014 were the only non-European nationality in the top 25 tallest in the world
  • In East Asia, South Korean and Chinese men and women are now taller than their Japanese counterparts
  • Adult height plateaued in South Asian countries like Bangladesh and India at around 5-10 cm shorter than in East Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea
  • The smallest adult men in 1914 were found in Laos, where the average male height was 153cm, a similar height to a well-nourished 12-year-old boy living today. In 1914 the smallest women were found in Guatemala, where the average female height was 140cm, a similar height to a well-nourished 10-year-old girl.

The nations with the tallest men in 2014 (1914 ranking in brackets):

  1. Netherlands (12)
  2. Belgium (33)
  3. Estonia (4)
  4. Latvia (13)
  5. Denmark (9)
  6. Bosnia and Herzegovina (19)
  7. Croatia (22)
  8. Serbia (30)
  9. Iceland (6)
  10. Czech Republic (24)

The nations with the tallest women in 2014 (1914 ranking in brackets):

  1. Latvia (28)
  2. Netherlands (38)
  3. Estonia (16)
  4. Czech Republic (69)
  5. Serbia (93)
  6. Slovakia (26)
  7. Denmark (11)
  8. Lithuania (41)
  9. Belarus (42)
  10. Ukraine (43)

##

References

The research was funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Government of Canada through Grand Challenges Canada’s Saving Brains program.

“A century of trends in adult human height” is published in the journal eLife. Please link or hyperlink to the paper via the DOI wherever possible. It will go live at 00.01 hours (British Summer Time) on Tuesday 26th July and will be: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.13410.

A copy of the full paper is available to download here: https://fileexchange.imperial.ac.uk/pickup.php?claimID=iXGqqStkKrKUEw5p&claimPasscode=WXvPvGkruXjPmSwU&emailAddr=k.wighton%40imperial.ac.uk

World height maps, infographics and a GIF, to be credited to eLife, are available for reporters to download here: https://fileexchange.imperial.ac.uk/pickup.php?claimID=iXGqqStkKrKUEw5p&claimPasscode=WXvPvGkruXjPmSwU&emailAddr=k.wighton%40imperial.ac.uk

Image captions

Figure one caption: World map showing height of 18-year-old men in 1914 and 2014.

Figure two caption: World map showing height of 18-year-old women in 1914 and 2014.

For press-only link to interactive website showing height maps and country-by-country data see: http://www.ncdrisc.org/v-height.html

Media contacts

  1. Emily Packer
    eLife
    e.packer@elifesciences.org
    +441223855373

  2. Kate Wighton
    Imperial College London
    k.wighton@imperial.ac.uk
    +442075942410

About

About Imperial College London

Imperial College London is one of the world's leading universities. The College's 16,000 students and 8,000 staff are expanding the frontiers of knowledge in science, medicine, engineering and business, and translating their discoveries into benefits for society.

Founded in 1907, Imperial builds on a distinguished past - having pioneered penicillin, holography and fibre optics - to shape the future. Imperial researchers work across disciplines to improve health and wellbeing, understand the natural world, engineer novel solutions and lead the data revolution. This blend of academic excellence and its real-world application feeds into Imperial's exceptional learning environment, where students participate in research to push the limits of their degrees.

Imperial collaborates widely to achieve greater impact. It works with the NHS to improve healthcare in west London, is a leading partner in research and education within the European Union, and is the UK's number one research collaborator with China.

Imperial has nine London campuses, including its White City Campus: a research and innovation centre that is in its initial stages of development in west London. At White City, researchers, businesses and higher education partners will co-locate to create value from ideas on a global scale.

www.imperial.ac.uk

About the Wellcome Trust

Wellcome exists to improve health for everyone by helping great ideas to thrive. We’re a global charitable foundation, both politically and financially independent. We support scientists and researchers, take on big problems, fuel imaginations and spark debate. www.wellcome.ac.uk

About eLife

eLife is a unique collaboration between the funders and practitioners of research to improve the way important research is selected, presented and shared. eLife publishes outstanding works across the life sciences and biomedicine — from basic biological research to applied, translational, and clinical studies. All papers are selected by active scientists in the research community. Decisions and responses are agreed by the reviewers and consolidated by the Reviewing Editor into a single, clear set of instructions for authors, removing the need for laborious cycles of revision and allowing authors to publish their findings quickly. eLife is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society and the Wellcome Trust. Learn more at elifesciences.org.

    1. Epidemiology and Global Health

    A century of trends in adult human height

    NCD Risk Factor Collaboration (NCD-RisC)