The average height of European men grew by a surprising 11 centimetres from the early 1870s to 1980, reflecting significant improvements in health across the region, according to new research published on Monday.
Contrary to expectations, the study also found that average height accelerated in the period spanning the two World Wars and the Great Depression, when poverty, food rationing and hardship of war might have been expected to limit people’s growth.
The swift advance may have been due to people deciding to have fewer children in this period, the researchers said, and smaller family size has previously been found to be linked to increasing average height.
“Increases in human stature are a key indicator of improvements in the average health of populations,” said Timothy Hatton, a professor economics at Britain’s University of Essex who led the study.
He said the evidence—which shows the average height of a European male growing from 167 cm to 178 cm in a little over a 100 years—suggests an environment of improving health and decreasing disease “is the single most important factor driving the increase in height”.
The study, published online in the journal Oxford Economic Papers, analysed data on average men’s height at around the age of 21 from the 1870s up to around 1980 in 15 European countries.
The study only looked at men, the researchers said, because extensive historical data on women’s heights is hard to come by.