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Why are Americans getting shorter?

Man standing near oversized ruler against blue background. (Getty)
Man standing near oversized ruler against blue background. (Getty)

Americans are getting shorter. Average height has been in decline since about 1980. What’s causing that and why does it matter?

In the 1800s, Americans were the tallest people in the world.

But in the 1980s, average American height began shrinking.

Today, American men stand at 47th in national height rankings. American women rank 58th. So what?

“Height is an overlooked indicator. It has effects that are important from the point of view of human welfare,” Professor John Komlos says.

Komlos says changes in average height reveal a lot about how well a society cares for its children. For example, look to the tallest people on earth — in the Netherlands.

Today, On Point: Why are Americans getting shorter?


John Komlos, professor emeritus in economics and economic history at the University of Munich in Germany.

Majid Ezzati, professor at the School of Public Health at Imperial College London.

Also Featured

Jörg Baten, professor of economic history at the University of Tuebingen.

Gert Stulp, sociologist at the University of Groningen.

Carolina de Weerth, professor at Radboud University Medical Center.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. Back in the 1800s, Americans were the tallest people in the world. On average, at least. And unfortunately, that form of American exceptionalism is long gone. Nowadays, the average height for American women ranks 58th in the world. Men, 47th. And in fact, the decline in average height for Americans has been going on for quite some time.

So what exactly is going on? What is manifesting itself in American bodies? That’s what we’re going to talk about today. And joining us now is John Komlos. He’s one of the pioneers of the study of population height and what it reveals about society. And he’s a professor emeritus in economics and economic history at the University of Munich in Germany.

Professor Komlos, welcome to On Point.

JOHN KOMLOS:  Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: First of all, tell us, you’ve been, you’re the leader, if not one of the leaders of the study of height and populations. What actually attracted you to this field, first of all?

KOMLOS: Height is a very important indicator of how well the human organism thrives in its socioeconomic environment.

And it is particularly important because it pertains to children and youth on whom we do not have many economic indicators. As economists, we use indicators like money, income, GDP per capita and so forth, but these indicators do not pertain to children and youth. And therefore, I thought that we needed an additional indicator for this group in the population, and it’s very important.

What happens to the human organism during the first 20 years of life, and it’s important to know that it’s the first 20 years. And what happens after that is a different story.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Okay. So before we get into what’s been happening here in the United States, I’d love to know about how far back does your data go in terms of average population for various countries?

There’s archaeological evidence, and that is something that I have not dwelled into. I use written evidence, archival evidence, and that goes back to the early 18th century when the French military began to measure the height of soldiers. And that, of course, means that it pertains to the birth cohort of the late 17th century. From then on, we have all sorts of different data available to us. Military records, West Point cadets, civil war soldiers, runaway slaves, runaway indentured servants, on which there were advertisement in newspapers that could be collected and schools that recorded the height of students. So there are the whole passport applicants, a whole bunch of different records.

CHAKRABARTI: Can you tell me more about those early military records?

How did, it sounds like there’s a somewhat of a detective story here too. How did you find them?

KOMLOS: Many of these records are in archives and they’re not easy to find. And even when you do find them, they’re not easy to work with because they haven’t been looked at for sometimes, 200 or 300 years.

And it takes a little bit of, it’s very dusty and the writing is not always easy to decipher. So it was a bit of a detective work, and it took some while to collect hundreds of thousands of data.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. I’m sticking with history here for a moment because I want to understand if there’s a pattern that we’ve been seeing for several hundred years in terms of what has an impact on adult average height.

Were there differences amongst groups that were evident, let’s say, in the 18th and 19th centuries?

KOMLOS: Oh, definitely. Definitely. One important pattern is that social status is always and everywhere an important indicator. Because people who are better off are taller. So the aristocracy, for example, is taller than the average height.

Students are taller, usually than the average height. Passport applicants in the 19th century U.S. are much taller than the average. Because they were from the better off segment of the population. Yes, that is one important aspect. The other one is that economic transformation always leaves an imprint on the human body.

So the advent of agriculture, for example, during the agricultural revolution, meant that for a while people became shorter. Because their protein supply declined, population density was greater. And that left an imprint on the human body. The same thing with the industrial revolution, the same thing with the onset of modern economic growth.

And it appears that within the last few decades, the advent of the knowledge economy also meant, also has the same pattern that the American population’s height either stagnated or declined for similar reasons.

CHAKRABARTI: This is remarkable, professor.


CHAKRABARTI: So you’re saying that economic transition leaves a mark on the human body.

All the transitions that you described, though, the idea, at least, in capitalism is that they lead to efficient, more productive economies. But I didn’t hear you describe a positive impact or a positive mark on the human body.

KOMLOS: It’s a more productive economy, let’s say, with the industrial revolution, definitely.

But the people who are working in cities are not making sufficient amounts of money to be able to afford food, nutrition at the same rate as they did when they were living near to the food supply. And closer to the animal products that were being produced. So population density has a very important role to play.

Urbanization has a very important role to play, because food is more expensive in an urban environment. So that is why it is so important to consider diet, because it pertains again to children and youth who are not earning an income, and yet the parents very often have to pay a higher price for the nutrition.

Even though the economy may be more productive.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. But of course, to state the obvious, the lower incomes earned by industrial era, Industrial Revolution era workers or let’s say the larger fraction of their income that they had to spend on food, that didn’t just happen by accident, right?

Someone was setting their wages.

KOMLOS: Yeah, exactly.

CHAKRABARTI: No, go ahead, if you wanted to respond to that.

KOMLOS: No the same thing happens in America. American population in the 1840s, birth cohort, let’s say, has an incredible amount of food supply available to it relative to Europe. And Americans are taller than Europeans by a couple of inch.

But at the same time, urbanization in the 1840s is proceeding at such a rate that food prices increase, and as a consequence, the population’s height declines. It’s an incredible story.

CHAKRABARTI: So you’re seeing that strong correlation regardless of what essentially historical era you’re looking at.

There’s one more thing, though, about the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in the United States, that I wanted to ask you about, in terms of where you got records from and what it shows. Because, of course, the slave trade was quite active at that time. And if I understand correctly, it involved, if not some, then quite a bit of detailed record keeping. Because, of course, those enslaved people were considered property and commodity to be traded, and those things are very carefully tracked.

Did you find data from that section of American history?

KOMLOS: Yes, actually, somebody else studied that data set, it pertains to the cost wise manifests, because slaves that were traded, their height were recorded on account of the fact that they had to be documented that they were actually American slaves and not imported slaves, because imports were no longer allowed.

The height of slaves was measured, and it’s extremely important to know that they were, of course, shorter than American ones. Because obviously their nutrition was not as good, but they were taller than those who they left behind in Africa, which means that the American nutritional environment was much better than what was available in Africa.

So that’s an interesting realization.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. We’re headed towards the break here. We have about 30 seconds left Professor Komlos. Do you mind if I quickly ask you, you’re free not to answer this question, but I’m just curious.


CHAKRABARTI: How tall are you?

KOMLOS: I’m 5’7.

CHAKRABARTI: You’re 5’7. We’re the same height.

KOMLOS: Okay. 5’7. But you have to take into consideration that I was born during the Holocaust in Hungary in 1944. So my nutrition in the womb was not particularly good. I’m two inches shorter than my father.

CHAKRABARTI: I see. So that gets us again to this truth that your receipt research has revealed. That circumstances, environment policies do imprint themselves literally on our bodies.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.