Could our neglect of health and the environment be making us shorter? According to recent studies, chaps in Holland are an average of two inches taller than American men these days, whereas in the 19th century, our lads towered an average two and a half inches over them and all of the rest of western Europe.
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 the heights of nations.
But why? Well, it may be due to decline in prenatal care, increases in early childhood disease, malnutrition, or lack of consistent health care. The environment that children are in from the moment of conception through adolescence is the biggest determinant of height. And while wealth is an important factor — countries with more of it have more to spend on feeding and caring for children — it’s not the sole determining factor, as evidenced here in the U.S.
“American children might consume more meals prepared outside of the home, more fast food rich in fat, high in energy density and low in essential micronutrients,” wrote Komlos and co-author Benjamin E. Lauderdale of Princeton University. “Furthermore, the European welfare states provide a more comprehensive social safety net including universal health care coverage.”
But it is unlikely that Komlos will ever find one simple factor to explain why Americans have fallen behind other rich countries in height. In all likelihood it is caused by a combination of things — a little bit health care, some diet, a sprinkling of economic inequality.
“In some ways it gets to the fundamentals of the American society, namely what is the ideology of the American society and what are the shortcomings of that ideology,” Komlos said. “I would argue that to take good care of its children is not part of that ideology.”