Americans shorter on average than Europeans

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To the casual observer, Europeans -- who often seemed short, even to me (I'm 5-foot-7), when I first began traveling a lot in the 1970s -- now often seem tall by American standards. And that casual observation matches what careful researchers have found.

The data show that Americans, who in the words of a recent paper by the economic historian John Komlos and Benjamin Lauderdale in Social Science Quarterly, were ''tallest in the world between colonial times and the middle of the 20th century,'' have now ''become shorter (and fatter) than Western and Northern Europeans. In fact, the U.S. population is currently at the bottom end of the height distribution in advanced industrial countries.''

This is not a trivial matter. As the paper says, ''height is indicative of how well the human organism thrives in its socioeconomic environment.'' There's a whole discipline of ''anthropometric history'' that uses evidence on heights to assess changes in social conditions.
For example, nothing demonstrates the harsh class distinctions of Britain in the age of Dickens better than the 9-inch height gap between 15-year-old students at Sandhurst, the elite military academy, and their counterparts at the working-class Marine School. The dismal working and living conditions of urban Americans during the Gilded Age were reflected in a 1-1/2 inch decline in the average height of men born in 1890, compared with those born in 1830. Americans born after 1920 were the first industrial generation to regain preindustrial stature.

So what is America's modern height lag telling us?

There is normally a strong association between per capita income and a country's average height. By that standard, Americans should be taller than Europeans: U.S. per capita G.D.P. is higher than that of any other major economy. But since the middle of the 20th century, something has caused Americans to grow richer without growing significantly taller...

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