Men's average height 'up 11cm since 1870s'

Graphic of height changes

Related Stories

The average height of men has risen by almost 11cm since the mid-19th century, experts have found.

Data was collected on hundreds of thousands of men from 15 European countries.

For British men, the average height at age 21 rose from 167.05cm (5ft 5in) in 1871-75 to 177.37cm (5ft 10in) in 1971-75.

A public health expert said height was a "useful barometer" but it was crucial to focus on improving health overall.

The paper, published in the journal Oxford Economic Papers, looked at data from sources including military records and modern population surveys from the 1870s to 1980 in 15 European countries.

It looked only at male height because there was too little historical data for women.

Childhood disease

Genes may be commonly seen as the main determinant of height, but although they explain the difference between individuals, they would not explain the trend seen in this paper, its lead author said.

Prof Tim Hatton of the University of Essex said there was no "Darwinian explanation" to the trend. "People are surviving in the 20th Century who would not have survived in the 19th," he added.

Fleet St London in the 1880s Men were shorter in Victorian times

The researchers said the gene pool "cannot account for substantial increases in mean stature over four or five generations".

Growth is significantly affected by what happens in the first two years of life, they said.

So, a high rate of illnesses such as respiratory diseases or diarrhoeas - which caused many infant deaths - would also affect survivors' development and therefore their subsequent height.

Infant mortality rates fell significantly throughout the period studied.

Another factor taken into account by the researchers was an increasing move to smaller families - meaning fewer people to feed.

Higher income, more sanitary living conditions and better education about health and nutrition could also have had an effect, they said.

North-south divide

The paper also shows that height patterns varied across different countries.

Contrary to what might have been expected, in northern Europe - including in Britain - there was a significant surge in average height in the period covering the two world wars and the Great Depression, before the introduction of the national health service.

Start Quote

Increasing height is a reflection of how the availability of food and nutrition had broadly improved until the recent excesses of fat and sugar”

End Quote Dr John Middleton Faculty of Public Health

Prof Hatton suggested this was because the benefits of long-term improvements in sanitation, hygiene and nutrition were being seen.

During periods of war, he explained, more women were earning an income and rationing actually improved diets for some.

However, in southern Europe there was a sharp acceleration in average height seen after World War II.

This was when those countries saw significant income growth and adopted some of the social measures that northern European countries had adopted more slowly in previous decades, Prof Hatton said.

He added: "Increases in human stature are a key indicator of improvements in the average health of populations."

Dr John Middleton of the UK's Faculty of Public Health said: "Does how tall we are really tell us how healthy we are? This interesting research suggests that it's certainly a factor.

"Increasing height is a reflection of how the availability of food and nutrition had broadly improved until the recent excesses of fat and sugar.

"However, we can't conclude that shorter men are somehow unhealthier. Like a lot of research, this paper prompts more questions than it set out to answer.

"While our average height is a useful barometer to bear in mind, what we really need is to tackle the many reasons for poor health that we can address.

"Employment is one of the best ways to do that, which is why we need to focus on more than just diet and exercise when it comes to improving the nation's health."


More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    It'll be all that reaching up for the magazines on the top shelf...

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    #123 Very little if any. Firstly giving cows growth hormone is common in the US but illegal in the EU. More importantly bovine growth hormone doesn't work in humans and wouldn't be viable after cooking and digestion.

    If you're still not convinced you'll probably find the increase in height is also seen in British Hindus (don't eat cow) and vegetarians.

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    @95. Not entirely true. The American statistics were distorted by the huge 19th C influx of poor & often malnourished European immigrants who generally located in industrial cities. The second generation caught up with longer term US citizens. US Civil War military records show the size disparity between city & rural dwellers. Same here in WW1 & WW2.

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    Most of the growth is probably due to better nutrition and better health due to vaccines and antibiotics against illnesses. However,I wonder how much is also due to all the growth hormones fed to the meat we eat and which has been fed to animals since the 20th century-this is not healthy growth passed on to humans as drugs in the food chain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    The height variation equates to about 10cm... If the figures are correct, less than the height of an average human head; making the visualisation in the graph above very misleading! Was the graph provided by the same companies who produce the very (with relation to size/ land mass) misleading world maps we are subjected to?

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    By my reckoning, in the year 3000 mans height will be 11 foot at that rate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    Many people in third world countries are small - the reason : malnutrition and/or childhood illness - Issues that the WHO have known for years - it seems this is yet another study of something that was already known.

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    @112 Bradford

    Why does it matter which articles are open for comments? You don't need a comment box to be able to form or air your opinion do you?

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.


    "It doesn't make a lot of difference, they'll still design the seating on buses, trains and aircraft for the 1870 average" -

    er, didn't realise aircraft seating was designed in 1870

    Hot air balloon seats then?

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    Being short means clothes don't fit unless one has the figure of a child and likes kids clothes. a step stool is a fixture in all rooms but one does not have to go to the gym to do aerobics. My feet rarely touch the ground when eating, cinema or theatre going but its not because I am in love or euphoric. The averages have the advantages.

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    Oh jesus people I came here to see what people thought about the height and wether it is relative to our increased nutrition and other science. Yet no I get more whining about Syria.
    Seriously for a public who want as little to do witih Syria as possible you all sure like to discuss it at every bloody opportunity.
    Discuss Syria on the talk pages that are about Syria.

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    With world population rocketing, it would be far better if humans were getting smaller rather than bigger.

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    107. Steve

    Not really mate its just easier to say "he was 6 foot" than to say "he was 182.88 centimetres".

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    Wait a minute, were they really smaller back then, or just further away? Small, or far away? Small, or far away?...

    Tall men are believed to be more decisive, honest, hold strong conviction and are natural leaders. However, David Cameron is about 6'7" so you can't believe everything...

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    You don't say!

    Lots of other topics BBC, why don't you open the story on students continuing English & Maths?

  • Comment number 111.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    93. Mike from Brum
    Look at the sizes of the armour decorating old castles. A good amount of it was made for munchkins
    Some of it WAS made for kids (sons of Dukes etc) but generally old armour tricks people. The way its hung on display doesn't reflect how its worn & doesn't allow enough space at the joints. Henry VIII was well over 6 foot but even his armour looks like its for a short man.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    I wonder how the waist sizes and BMI rates have faired relative to our increase in height. I'm guessing they'll show much larger growth rates...

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    Is this worthy of being included in HYS.

    There are more important issues to be discussed than men's height!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.


    Isn't it fiunny how so many Brits still can't talk about their height in metric despite NHS as well as all countries around talking metric?
    So stuck in the imperial past still...



Page 11 of 17


More Health stories



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.