What height says about the development of our prosperity and health

(© Image: Depositphotos)
(© Image: Depositphotos)

As a boy, did you grow up among sisters in around 1850? Then you probably grew taller than a boy who only had brothers. Someone’s height says a lot about the quality of life in their first 20 years. Malnutrition, disease and hard labour can inhibit people’s growth. Historian Björn Quanjer studied how the height of Dutch men between 1850 and 1950 was influenced by the households in which they grew up. Quanjer will be defending his PhD thesis at Radboud University on 1 May.

From the mid-nineteenth century, the standard of living in the Netherlands improved dramatically. Better healthcare, higher wages, electricity and heating, compulsory education and better nutrition. A widely used yardstick to measure progress in health in particular is life expectancy. ’But that says very little about how healthy you were when you were alive,’ explains historian Bjorn Quanjer. ’Height, on the other hand, is a summary of the first 20 years of a life. Clean drinking water, good sanitation and housing, hygiene and vaccination: it all’affects height.’

Quanjer examined how factors within the household affected an individual adult’s height. To do so, he combined data from the Historische Steekproef Nederland (HSN) - a database containing tens of thousands of individual life histories of people born between 1812 and 1922 - with data from conscription registers, in which the height of Dutch men from the period 1850 -1950 was recorded during the medical examination.

Siblings

From his data, Quanjer distilled several interesting factors that play a role in the height an adult Dutch man reaches. ’A Dutch household in the nineteenth century had limited resources. More siblings simply meant smaller portions of food and drink. Boys in households with fewer children grew taller,’ says Quanjer. ’Another important factor is whether a boy grew up among sisters or brothers. Boys with only sisters grew taller. Perhaps they were better placed to claim their portion. So the composition of a household is definitely important.’

Quanjer also examined the impact of parental death on children’s height. In particular, maternal death had a negative effect: young boys between the ages of 5 and 12 lagged behind their peers in growth by missing out on care, such as healthy nutrition and hygiene. ’This shows how informative body height is,’ says Quanjer. ’Previous research studying child mortality showed that maternal death did not matter from the age of five. But in height, you do see an effect on health.’

Stagnation

Around 1850, the average height of men in the Netherlands was 1.68 metres, the absolute lowest point in Dutch height history. Now, the height of the average Dutch man is 1.84 metres. ’So we have clearly improved, but that increase has now stagnated,’ says Quanjer. ’This could mean that we are becoming unhealthier again. My research shows that height is an interesting indicator of health and prosperity. When we better understand factors that affect height, we can also use that knowledge to better map health and prosperity in regions that are hard to reach.’