Longer body, longer life?

U. SOUTHAMPTON (UK) —The way we live directly affects the length of our bodies, according to new research that confirms a link between height and longevity.

A new book, The Changing Body, explores the links between nutrition and economic development in Europe and North America since the early-1700s, linking the changing size, shape, and capability of the human body to economic and demographic change.

In nineteenth-century Europe, there were dramatic differences between the heights of poor London boys and boys attending the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, between army recruits and students attending the École Polytechnique in France, and between the sons of ‘elite’ families and those who grew up in unskilled manual households in the Netherlands.

In the 1780s, the average height of a 14-year-old working-class child was 1.3 meters, while an upper class child was “significantly taller” at 1.55 meters. Today, the difference between the upper- and working-class adults has narrowed to less than 0.06 meters.

“The aim is to describe, analyze, and explain changes in height and health in different countries over time, says Bernard Harris of the University of Southampton and one of the book’s authors. “However, we also want to emphasize the ways in which the changes may affect patterns of human development in the future.

“Our work shows that there have been dramatic changes in child health (as reflected in achieved adult height) over the last 100 years, and other researchers have highlighted the existence of close links between improvements in child health and health in later life. These changes have profound implications for developments in later-life health, longevity and economic performance over the coming century.

“The investments we make in the health of today’s children can play a pivotal role in determining the economic wellbeing of future generations.”

Regional variation also played its part. Two centuries ago, people in Scotland were 2.3 centimeters taller than those living in southern England, while Norwegians were among the shortest nations in Europe.

Today the Scottish, averaging 1.73 meters for an adult male, are shorter than those living in southeast England at 1.75 meters, while the Norwegians are the second tallest nation in Europe, surpassed only by the Dutch.

“Improvements in diet and sanitation in the southeast have outstripped improvements in Scotland, reflecting the broad pattern of economic and social change over the last 200 years.”

More news from the University of Southampton: http://www.soton.ac.uk/