The History Of Heights

Height-inducing health is more complicated than a full belly and vaccinations. If it were, Americans, once the tallest in the world, would not be looking up to western Europeans. Despite advances in technology and health care, the average American man—5 foot 9.5 inches—is just an inch taller than the average soldier was during the Revolutionary War. Americans have not inched up since 1955. Meanwhile, stature in Western Europe has climbed by two centimeters a decade. American women, particularly black women, may have even shrunk over the last few generations. It would be tempting to point the finger at immigrants from short countries, but studies that exclude people of Asian and Hispanic descent don’t alter the data. Beginning in infancy and through adolescence, Americans grow less than their western European peers, implying that better health care and a more even distribution of wealth in social welfare states is part of the answer. (The Dutch offer top-notch prenatal and postpartum care at free clinics.) Some scientists also lay blame on the fast-food American diet. If hamburgers, fries, and soda take the place of fruits, vegetables, and milk, kids may not be getting the nutrients they need. So instead of growing up, Americans are growing out. While Americans are no longer the tallest, they are among the widest.

Height alone is not all that important to well-being, especially when the differences are a matter of a few inches. After all, it’s not exactly a competition. Being short has not affected many people's life in any significant way and is sometimes an advantage. (Although studies do show taller people earn more money.)  Because, for instance, aside from potentially having less of a prostate cancer risk, people below average height do have one thing going for them. He or she will use someone’s foot being tickled as an example, arguing that it would take a tenth of a second longer for a taller person’s brain to process the action than a shorter person because the information has a longer way to travel from the foot to the brain. In their view, tall people live life on a slight delay, albeit a mostly insignificant one.The case can even be made that smaller people consume less and are better for the environment. But as a bellwether for the well-being of society, collective height should be taken seriously, as should America’s relatively high rates of infant mortality among industrialized countries. Despite our wealth, Americans are coming up short in more ways than one.