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Are You One of the Shrinking Americans?

Junk food diets and shoddy healthcare are making Americans shorter than Western Europeans.
 
 
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According to a new study, white and black Americans have been shrinking dramatically relative to their European counterparts since the end of World War II.

Researchers say a population's average height is a "mirror" reflecting the socioeconomic health of a society and speculate that Americans' worship of "market-based" social policies may explain why we're now looking up to the Germans and Swedes.

It's a dramatic reversal. We had always been giants, with the tallest men in the world, going back as far as the data exists (at least to the mid-19th century). During the First World War, American GIs still towered over the Europeans they liberated. But for three decades beginning at the end of World War II, Americans' average height stagnated while Europeans continued the growth-spurt that one would expect to see during a period of relative peace and rising incomes.

Now, with an average height of 5'10", American men are now significantly shorter than men from countries like Denmark (6-footers) or the Netherlands (6' 1"). In fact, Americans -- men and women -- are now shorter, on average, than the citizens of every single country in Western and Northern Europe.

And our vertical challenge is continuing to grow; American whites born between 1975-1983 started growing again, but still not as quickly as Western Europeans born in the same period. Meanwhile, the average height of American blacks in that age group remained unchanged.

The study avoided capturing the effect that immigrants coming from less developed (and presumably shorter) countries might have by looking only at non-Hispanic whites and blacks in the United States. The researchers also compared people born in the same period in order to avoid the effect aging has on height. The data were actual measurements rather than the heights people reported to researchers, as some earlier studies had used.

How can one explain that reversal -- a turnaround the study's authors, Benjamin Lauderdale at Princeton University and John Komlos at the University of Munich, call "remarkable"? They believe it's a result of "differences in the socioeconomic institutions of Europe and the United States":

We conjecture that the U.S. healthcare system, as well as the relatively weak welfare safety net, might be why human growth in the United States has not performed as well in relative terms ...

What determines the height of a population?

Scientists have a good understanding of the factors that determine height. Genetic variations are key to individuals' heights but aren't a significant factor in the average height of a population. That has to do with health and nutrition, especially during childhood, from prenatal health through adolescence. The authors of the study note that, in the scientific community, "there is widespread agreement that nutritional intake, the incidence of diseases and the availability of medical services have a major impact on human size."

More research is needed to fully understand why Americans are shrinking relative to the Europeans, but some differences between the two cultures -- and their political economies -- stand out.

Healthcare is one. It's not just that Europeans are universally covered while one out of seven Americans is uninsured; it's also the difference in approach. Specifically, public-sector healthcare puts a greater emphasis on prevention, while our for-profit insurance-based system creates incentives to treat illness rather than prevent it. This leads not only to much greater costs -- the United States spends about twice as much per person on healthcare as the rest of the advanced economies do -- but also plays a likely role in our declining stature.

The United States also has far more concentrated wealth than any of its European allies. That means that while we are, on average, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, we also lead all the advanced economies in poverty. Poverty limits access to both healthcare and good nutrition.

A more important factor, in terms of average height, is childhood poverty. Here, the United States stands alone among the advanced economies with a stunning figure: 18 percent of American children -- almost one in five -- live in poverty. No other industrialized country comes close -- it's about five times the child poverty rate in Northern Europe. Again, nutrition and access to healthcare both vary with family income for children just as they do in adults.

Nutrition is a key determinant of height. According to the study, "U.S. children consume more meals prepared outside the home, more fast food rich in fat, high in energy density, and low in essential micronutrients, than do European children." That is ultimately a cultural issue -- a result of a fast-food lifestyle that may have long-term consequences for growing bones. Public and corporate policies play a role as well: the United States stands out from Europe (and the rest of the world) in its lack of family-friendly workplaces. According to a study conducted by researchers at Harvard, it is among only five countries in the world that doesn't mandate some form of paid maternal leave. The only other advanced economy among those five is Australia, where women are guaranteed an entire year of unpaid leave.

That makes it all but impossible for most people to effectively balance work and family life and that, in turn, means more fast food on the run and less time taking care of sick kids -- both factors that constrain average height. And the potential impact on height might be greater still before the kids are born; research shows that every week of paid maternity leave significantly reduces infant mortality rates, a key indicator of prenatal health.

Priorities

The key finding of the study is is not that we are shrinking in absolute terms, it's that we're falling behind relative to our wealthy cousins. Europeans have grown in height as much as the rise in their average incomes during the 20th century would predict; Americans have not.

And it's not just height. Among the 20 most developed countries in the world, the United States is now dead last in life expectancy at birth but leads the pack in infant mortality -- forty percent higher than the runnerup -- and in the percentage of the population that will die before reaching 60. (Perhaps it shouldn't be much of a surprise, then, that we lead the world in mental illness.)

These are above all else, a reflection of our priorities. It's not just that we accept a child poverty rate that would be a front-page scandal in most of the world's wealthy countries, we also spend the least on social services. The two are correlated; as economist Sylvia Allegretto has pointed out, "Those countries with higher social expenditures -- as a percentage of gross domestic product, or GDP -- have dramatically lower poverty rates among children."

According to Lauderdale and Komlos, one has to look at the interplay between several factors to understand what's going on. "[T]he political economy of the healthcare system, education, transfers to the poor and government policy toward equality (hence taxation policy) all matter" in determining average height, say the researchers.

These are policy matters that are usually understood as ideological, as left-right issues. In one sense they certainly are, but they're also questions of gearing public policy to the long- or the short-term, and we seem to prefer short-term approaches. Investing in our children's health and well-being may not pay off in terms of lower taxes next quarter or next year, but it might allow them to walk a bit taller a generation or two down the line.

Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.

 
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