The mysterious trend in American heights in the 20th century

Ann Hum Biol. 2007 Mar-Apr;34(2):206-15. doi: 10.1080/03014460601116803.


Background: The secular trend in the height of the US population has been almost neglected in a comparative perspective, despite its being a useful indicator of early-life biological conditions.

Aim: The study estimated the height of the US population and compared it to Western European trends after World War II.

Subjects and method: The complete set of NHES and NHANES data were analyzed, collected between 1959 and 2004 by the National Center for Health Statistics, in order to construct trends of the physical stature of US-born men and women limited to non-Hispanic blacks and whites. Also analyzed was the trend in the height of US military personnel whose parents were also born in the USA. The trends and levels were compared with those of several European populations.

Results: The increase in the physical stature of US adults slowed down by mid-century concurrent with a substantial acceleration in height attainment in Western and Northern Europe. Military data corroborate this finding in the main. After being the tallest population in the world ever since colonial times, Americans are now shorter than most Western and Northern Europeans and as much as 4.7-5.7 cm shorter than the Dutch, who are the tallest in world today.

Conclusion: Given the well-established relationship between adult stature and early-life biological welfare, it was hypothesized that either American diets are sub-optimal or that the universal health care systems and social safety net of the European welfare states are providing a more favorable early-life health environment than does the American health care system.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Black or African American / statistics & numerical data
  • Body Height*
  • Diet
  • Europe
  • Female
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Military Personnel / statistics & numerical data
  • Social Welfare
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • United States
  • White People / statistics & numerical data