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Getting Bigger All the Time: Why Humans Are Taller and Healthier Than Ever

Getting Bigger All the Time: Why Humans Are Taller and Healthier Than Ever

Without the past century’s improvements in nutrition, sanitation, and medicine, only half of us Americans would be alive today.

So says Samuel H. Preston, one of the world’s leading demographers and a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania in discussing a soon-to-be-published book by Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert W. Fogel and colleages, The Changing Body: Health, Nutrition, and Human Development in the Western World Since 1700. The New York Times describes the book as “one of the most ambitious projects undertaken in economic history” and “sure to renew debates over Mr. Fogel’s groundbreaking theories about what some regard as the most significant development in humanity’s long history.”

According to Fogel’s new book, “the size, shape and longevity of the human body have changed more substantially, and much more rapidly, during the past three centuries than over many previous millennia.” He and his colleagues argue that food production and public health are the key reasons for the amazing “technophysio evolution” of humans as we are in the 21st century. Indeed, they argue that “people today stand apart not just from every other species, but from all previous generations of Homo sapiens as well.”

To take just a few examples, the average adult man in 1850 in America stood about 5 feet 7 inches and weighed about 146 pounds; someone born then was expected to live until about 45. In the 1980s the typical man in his early 30s was about 5 feet 10 inches tall, weighed about 174 pounds and was likely to pass his 75th birthday.

Across the Atlantic, at the time of the French Revolution, a 30-something Frenchman weighed about 110 pounds, compared with 170 pounds now. And in Norway an average 22-year-old man was about 5 ½ inches taller at the end of the 20th century (5 feet 10.7 inches) than in the middle of the 18th century (5 feet 5.2 inches).

Fogel and his colleagues emphasize that it is the health and nutrition of pregnant mothers and their children which “contribute to the strength and longevity of the next generation.” Without sufficient nutrition in the womb and early life, babies are deprived of vital nutrition and are more vulnerable to diseases. Technology has played a huge role in providing humans with better health than ever in their existence:

Before the 19th century, most people were caught in an endless cycle of subsistence farming. A colonial-era farmer, for example, worked about 78 hours during a five-and-a-half-day week. People needed more food to grow and gain strength, but they were unable to produce more food without being stronger.

Fogel’s research has and will have a huge effect on developing policy about public health in poorer nations. Other scholars argue that, beyond the focus on nutrition, a greater role should be allotted to public health practices including sewage systems, hand washing and quarantining in hospitals (after all, what good is plenty of food if you have chronic diarrhea?). Fogel and his colleagues make correlations between height, nutrition and economic wealth, yet, as Princeton economist Angus Deaton notes, “‘African adults and children are so much taller than Indian adults and children, but it can’t be their income, because Indians are much richer.’” Innovations like vaccines and antibiotics and other medicines have also played a huge role in making humans healthier.

These discussions aside, the data that Fogel and his colleagues have gathered is fascinating to contemplate. I’m five feet tall and, two weeks shy of his fourteenth birthday, my son is 5 feet, 9 inches. He’s always been carefully followed by doctors (Charlie is on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum) and certainly has a far healthier diet than his great-grandfathers (who were born in rural southern China) did. Due to his disability, Charlie’s chances for a good life and even for survival would have been very different had he lived in a different century or geographic location.

On the other hand, I always surprise my students when I tell them that Philip of Macedon II, the father of Alexander the Great and the powerful King of Macedon in northern Greece, was—based on archaeological evidence (armor)—not very tall (more my height than my son’s). Height is great, but it’s not everything.


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12:57PM PST on Feb 12, 2012

His research is flawed. He's only looking at white/European people from the past. The descriptions of North American Native people by Jesuits, other priests and European explorers found that they were very tall, robust, muscular and healthy. They also ate better food and were cleaner than Europeans of the time.

7:17PM PST on Dec 26, 2011

@..James T…”why should we be getting taller over so short a timeframe?” Interesting question. No one seems to have brought up growth hormones Growth enhanced chickens reach full size in half the time it takes drug free chickens and girls keep developing breasts and having periods at younger and younger ages. The drugs don’t magically disappear on the way to our plates.

7:09PM PST on Dec 26, 2011

@..Grace A ..You seem pretty familiar with god’s image. Is He or She male, female or hermaphrodite and how tall is He or She or It ?

6:53PM PST on Dec 26, 2011

The article incorrectly implies that humans have progressively grown taller and heavier It is certainly true that people in the 1700’s were smaller than now as claimed. But it is also true that skeletons from Henry VIII’s [he was 6’3” and athletic] sunken ship, the Mary Rose were as tall as Englishmen today and military age for them and mediaeval archers recruited from the poorer classes was not 45, but sixteen to sixty. Of course people other than monks were not caught up in an obesity epidemic like today’s folks.

11:45AM PDT on Aug 8, 2011

I have been watching kids grow taller for some time now....back in 1960 we had very few tall boys or girls in first grade. Whether or not we are healthier remains to be seen. As long as we continue to ingest nitrates and nitrites and food additives and food colors and anti caking agents and flavor enhancers.......................If there are more than 5 ingredients listed on my food label I do not buy it. Often. LOL.

11:04AM PDT on Aug 7, 2011

Thanks for an interesting article. I know my family is getting taller. I'm 5'6", my son 6'1" and my grandsons are 6'4".

11:06PM PDT on Aug 6, 2011

People are more obese these days as well as taller. I didn’t realize that MacDonalds was actually superior nutrition and obesity was healthy. Live and learn.

10:47AM PDT on Jul 3, 2011

raises interesting questions.

10:25PM PDT on May 25, 2011

The article raises many unanswered questions...why should we be getting taller over so short a timeframe? Why do we necessarily gain height when we are exposed to better nutrition, and for what purpose? Is it to accomodate extra bone and muscle mass? Are we simply returning to our original heights when we taller in the past as a result of evolution and good health, the information stored in our DNA long ago?

The article suggests that we were shorter in the past due to poor diet and nutrition, so why doesn't it follow that the people of poorer nations, as in the African example, start to shrink?

I am not necessarily a believer in the Bible but it isn't it intriguing that there is reference to 'giants' in the days of old, and that in the time of Noah, men lived far longer than they do now?

One last comment. Although nutrition is supposedly better today, many people choose not to consume it, instead opting for fast food and sugar, processed red meat etc. We are constantly being encouraged to change our diets to one more like they had in the past!!

11:54PM PDT on May 1, 2011

Almost every person I know over the age of 50 is on some kind of medication, so I have to disagree with the "healthier" assertion. They'll perhaps live longer because of the advances in healthcare, but the increases in teen obesity and diabetes make me wonder if kids today won't die before their parents!

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