Temperate parts of Asia, the Middle East and continental Europe have seen the biggest increase in average height © FT

In 1914 Americans and Scandinavians were the tallest people in the world. A century later other north Europeans have left them behind, with Dutch men and Latvian women the global height champions in 2014.

Overall, the world has grown taller over the past 100 years as economic prosperity and better nutrition have spread. But that growth has been uneven, according to the first comprehensive study of human height released on Monday at the European Science Open Forum in Manchester, England.

In the tallest countries a century ago — the US, Canada and Nordic countries — there has been relatively little change. In fact, growth stopped in the US in the early 1970s and there has been a slight decline in height there since 2000, partly due to falling nutritional standards. 

The fastest increases in average height have taken place in a belt stretching across continental Europe, the Middle East and the temperate parts of Asia. Iranian men are 16.5cm taller on average today than 100 years ago, while South Korean women are 20cm taller.

“Our study shows that the English-speaking world, especially the US, is falling behind other high-income nations in Europe and Asia-Pacific,” said Professor Majid Ezzati of Imperial College London, who led the research. It included measurements of 18.6m people at the age of 18 in 179 countries and was carried out by an international consortium of 800 scientists called NCD-RisC, in collaboration with the World Health Organisation, and is published by the online journal eLife

Mary De Silva, head of population, environment and health at the Wellcome Trust which co-funded the research, said: “The most striking finding is that despite the huge increases in height seen in most countries, there is still a considerable gap between the shortest and tallest.” 

Height males

Men in the Netherlands averaged 183cm (6ft 0in) in 2014 while their counterparts in East Timor, the world’s shortest, were 160cm (5ft 3in). Women were tallest in Latvia (170cm, 5ft 7in) and shortest in Guatemala (149cm, 4ft 11in). 

Height is strongly influenced by nutritional and environmental factors, including maternal health before birth and diet during childhood, though genes play a role too. In general, taller people tend to suffer less disease and to live longer, though research shows that greater height may carry some health risks including more susceptibility to prostate and ovarian cancer. 

Height females

Prof Ezzati said the height data highlighted global disparities in health, with the loss of height in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa causing particular concern. In Sierra Leone, Uganda and Rwanda, young adults are 5cm shorter on average today than they were 40 years ago — though still taller than 100 years ago. 

Professor Elio Riboli, director of the school of public health at Imperial College London, said of the recent decline in height in the US, the first industrialised country to see a halt in growth: “Immigration is one hypothesis to explain this but quality and equality of nutrition is another. There was a time when the US was the land of plenty but nutrition there is becoming worse and more unequal.”

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Playing catch-up / From Maarten van Hasselt

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