Contrary to expectations, the study also found that average height accelerated in the period spanning the two world wars and the Great Depression, when poverty, food rationing and hardship of war might have been expected to limit people’s growth.
The swift advance may have been due to people deciding to have fewer children in this period, the researchers said.
“Increases in human stature are a key indicator of improvements in the average health of populations,” said Timothy Hatton, a professor of economics at Britain’s University of Essex who led the study. He said the evidence – which shows the average height of a European male growing from 167cm to 178cm in a little over a 100 years – suggests an environment of improving health and decreasing disease “is the single most important factor driving the increase in height”. The study, published online in the journal Oxford Economic Papers, analyzed data on average men’s height at around the age of 21 from the 1870s up to around 1980 in 15 European countries.