Millennial changes in height - implications for stunting
height changes this millennium Michael Golden 22.03.2000
millennial changes in height - implications for stunting Kathy Dettwyler 27.03.2000
secular changes in height of Asian populations Stanley Ulijaszek 08.04.2000


Date: Wed, 22 Mar 2000 18:03:04 +0000

From: Michael Golden <refugeesatabdn.ac.uk>

Subject: height changes this millennium

 

Dear NGONUTS,

A member has asked: "In a recent review of the 'millennium', the Humanitarian Times (see here for more details) ran a statement about the large height difference between adult males in the US today, and their ancestors 500 or 600 years ago. Making the case that nutrition and health have contributed to a gradual gain in stature. Do you know what is the real difference between, say, American adult males' height in the US today, and, say, British or French males at, say, 1000 A.D. or 1500 A.D.? I imagine it's roughly 16 inches or so difference."

The answer, by Stanley Ulijaszek, arguably the leading nutritional anthropologist, is of general interest:

This is not as straightforward as one would hope. The period you're interested in is in some respects a bit of a 'black hole'. 16 inches difference seems impossible. We can easily go back to the mid-1700's: here are a few data-points for heights of adult males to compare with the American general population (from NHANES surveys), 1970s: 177cm

USA, soldier immigrants from Europe, 1760: 168cm (soldier immigrants, 1864: 169cm)
Norway, 1761: 159cm (in 1984, the value was 179cm) Irish soldiers, 1762-99: 169cm
English soldiers, 1762-99: 168cm
American soldiers, 1790: 172cm
British and Irish soldiers, 1800-14: 168cm Scottish prisoners, 1840s-1850s: 168cm
American soldiers, 1864: 172cm
South Italy, 1874-6: 161cm
All Italy, 1874-6: 162cm

The best series of stature data for Europe comes from the Mediterranean region (of the Greco-Roman political culture complex), from analysis of skeletal remains (again, adult males):

650-300BC 170cm
300BC-120AD 172cm
120-600 169cm
Medieval Greece 169cm
Byzantine Constantinople 170cm
1400-1800 172cm
1800-1920 170cm
1980s 175cm

Although we don't know enough about body size in preindustrial Europe, there has been a clear increase in body size in North American and Western European populations from the late 1800's to the present day, and this is justly attributed to improvements in nutrition and health. At present, the Dutch and the Swedish are the tallest (and perhaps healthiest) populations in the world.

With all best wishes,

Stanley Ulijaszek (stanley.ulijaszekatbioanth.ox.ac.uk)

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Note: The differences in the mean heights are much smaller than is generally appreciated. There are larger differences between the poor and rich in many countries today. It is also of interest that these data come from an era when public health (infectious disease control) was almost nonexistent and diarrhoea was treated by cupping or bleeding if you were rich enough to afford a doctor.

Mike

 

Prof. Michael H.N.Golden

Dept of Medicine and Therapeutics

Univ of Aberdeen, Foresterhill, AB9 2ZD. Scotland, (UK)

Tel +44 (1224) 681 818 ext 52793/53014, Tel(direct) +44 (1224) 663 123 527 93, Fax +44 (1224) 699 884

INTERNET m.goldenatabdn.ac.uk


Date: Mon, 27 Mar 2000 12:23:41 +0100

From: Michael Golden <refugeesatabdn.ac.uk>

Subject: millennial changes in height - implications for stunting

 

Kathy Dettwyler has contributed to the debate about changes in height throughout the millennia as follows:

----------------

Subject: Re: Male height history

Author: Kathy Dettwyler <dettwylerattamu.edu>

Date: 23-Mar-2000 04:20

 

>I imagine it's roughly 16 inches or so difference."

>16 inches difference seems impossible.

I agree. This is way too much. With average US male height about 5'9" today, a 16" difference would be males of 4'5". "Humans" have never been this short. If you go back to our hominid ancestors at 3.0-4.0 million years ago, they were 3-4' tall. But by the time of Homo erectus (1.6 million to about 300,000 years ago) the average height is up to 5', with some as tall as 5'6". The late Upper Paleolithic, just before the advent of the Neolithic (adoption of agriculture) shows Europeans at their tallest.

Agriculture was not such a hot idea -- providing less adequate nutrition at greater cost in terms of energy expenditure, and more diseases from living in settled populations. I recall data showing that the Neolithic Revolution in Greece and Rome resulted in decreases in average height by several inches, which have still not been completely recovered even today. I.e., modern Greeks and Italians are still shorter on average than their pre-Neolithic ancestors. But we are talking about an inch or two of average height, not 16", and we're talking about the difference between people today and 10,000 years ago, not 600 years ago.

>Although we don't know enough about body size in preindustrial Europe, there has been a clear increase in body size in North American and Western European populations from the late 1800's to the present day, and this is justly attributed to improvements in nutrition and health.

I agree. You can also see this clearly in immigrants to the US from places where nutrition and health in childhood are poor -- every generation immigrants get taller and taller, until they are within 1-2" of the US standard. It is thought by the general public that people like the Vietnamese or the Mayans of Guatemala are genetically short, but they are not -- they are environmentally short.

Kathy Dettwyler

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Note added by MG on stunting:

There are major cross-generational effects in height. In one experiment in rats Stewart divided a colony into two and malnourished one half - after many generations the cross-generationally malnourished rats were much smaller at maturity, had a different body composition and psychology (see Stewart RJC - Br J Nutr 43:403-412;1980 and refs therein). It took 3 generations for rehabilitation. There are several other studies confirming this type of phenomenon. For example Hurley's group (Science 218;469-471;1982) found the effects of mild gestational zinc deficiency on immune function persisted for 3 generations. I proposed that this could be mediated by epigenetic imprinting (EJCN 48:S58-S71;1994) to give a sort of short term Lamarkian inheritance with respect to height. During meiosis the parents "program" the offspring to suite the environment that the next generation will face. (parenthetically, this concept has major implications for Barker's hypothesis as well - ie this is a physiological mechanism that goes wrong when the environment changes dramatically from one generation to the next). The studies of Proos with immigrants to Sweden from India show that although they catch up remarkably as juveniles, the girls then have an early menarche and a final adult height that is slightly above the Indian mean, but well below the Swedish mean.

Cross-generational catch-up increments are not linear.

Implications:

1) The elite of today will be shorter than genetically possible for their ethnic group, unless there parents, grandparents and possibly great-grandparents were also well nourished.

2) The problems of stunting in many societies today cannot be reversed within one or two generations.

3) In doing surveys of the "nutritional health" using height-for-age of a population the parental heights should also be taken - these data could be used to adjust the absolute prevalence of "stunting" - we would wish to differentiate those who are experiencing "cross-generational catch-up" and achieving their "individualized potential" from those that are not - in other words perhaps we should judge an individual or population according to their parent's height rather than a USA standard.

4) if each generation of a "stunted" population is taller than the last then it is reasonable to assume that nutrition is improving (and may even be optimal), no-matter the absolute proportion below -2 ZScores NCHS standards.

5) The global data-base on nutrition (height-for-age and weight-for-age) should be interpreted with caution with respect to the nutritional status that a population has experienced over the past few years.

6) By changing the nutritional environment dramatically from one generation to another and achieving phenomenal catch-up, (I perceive catch-up as desirable), the individuals may be metabolically disadvantaged by imprinting, so that they have difficulty dealing with the new nutritional environment in other ways (diabetes, heart disease etc). There may be an optimum rate of population improvement which is less than the maximum achievable.

Michael Golden

 

Prof. Michael H.N.Golden

Dept of Medicine and Therapeutics

Univ of Aberdeen, Foresterhill, AB9 2ZD. Scotland, (UK)

Tel +44 (1224) 681 818 ext 52793/53014, Tel(direct) +44 (1224) 663 123 527 93, Fax +44 (1224) 699 884

INTERNET m.goldenatabdn.ac.uk


Date: Sat, 08 Apr 2000 11:11:16 +0100

From: ulijaszek <stanley.ulijaszekatbioanthropology.oxford.ac.uk>

Subject: secular changes in height of Asian populations

 

Kathy Dettwyler's comment about Maya and Vietnamese short stature not being genetic: I agree fully. I have just done a review of secular trends in stature of Asian children (Mayan populations are of Asian origin), and the data show a dramatic secular trend toward increased stature in Chinese; Japanese; Taiwanese; Mongolians; Uygurs; Koreans in China; Tibetans.

Looking at puberty, peak height velocity of Asian populations is approaching the same size as that of European and European-origin populations, but age at peak height velocity (which has earlier been reported to be earlier among Asians than among Europeans) hasn't shifted: ie there is a secular trend in the size of the pubertal growth spurt, but not in it's tempo.

Pre-neolithic stature of Mediterranean populations, Kathy is right again: stature of adult Greeks (unpublished, but collected in the 1980's) is: males: 175cm (compared with 177cm, pre-Neolithic); females: 160cm (compared with 167cm, pre-Neolithic).

 

Stanley Ulijaszek