Nutritional "Boost" Making Westerners Taller, Healthier, Expert Says

October 2, 2006

It's no secret that in the past few centuries people in Western nations have been getting taller and living longer.

But now experts say that today's Westerners are the product of an accelerated spate of growth that is unique in human history.

People in the developed world are taller and more robust than their great, great, great grandparents probably ever imagined.

Robert Fogel, director of the Center for Population Economics at the University of Chicago, notes that Westerners are about 50 percent larger and live more than twice as long as those who lived 250 years ago.

He and other researchers have come to believe this startling boost cannot be attributed solely to advances in medicine or industrialization.

Western societies have certainly benefited from such advances as antibiotics, Fogel says. But the best indication of whether a person lives long and enjoys good health is a person's size.

The taller you are, the longer you'll live, Fogel believes. And the reasons for this, he and others suggest, go back to the womb.

Birth Weight

Studies of Norwegian men in the 1960s found that taller men were more likely to survive longer. A 68-inch-tall (172-centimeter-tall) man, for example, was 50 percent more likely to die earlier than a 73-inch-tall (185-centimeter-tall) man was.

Intrigued by these studies, Fogel joined forces with economist Dora Costa, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, more than a decade ago.

Together they began comparing the records of U.S. Army veterans whose mean birth year was 1837 with those of veterans who were born in the early 1920s.

In both populations they found shorter men were more susceptible to chronic diseases.

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