Measuring A Country's Health By Its Height Height can be a clue to the health of a person and a population. The U.S. once had the tallest population in the world, but recent studies show northern Europeans are now on top.

Measuring A Country's Health By Its Height

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


There's also a link between nutrition and the height of a population. NPR's Nancy Shute explains why height reflects economic success.

NANCY SHUTE: Tiffani Mundaray has brought her two-year-old son Wayne for a checkup at Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C.

DAISY OBANOS: Don't be scared. OK?

SHUTE: The first thing medical assistant Daisy Obanos does is measure Wayne's height.

OBANOS: This is going to go on top of your head. He is three feet and a quarter.


SOHAIL RANA: How did you get to be so pretty, so good- looking?

SHUTE: Dr. Sohail Rana smiles at Wayne because he's doing great - in the 90th percentile for height.

RANA: He's growing well. It's very appropriate for his age.

SHUTE: All babies do better when they get good food and medical care, just like Wayne. And it turns out economists like John Komlos at the University of Munich use height in the measure of entire countries as well.

JOHN KOMLOS: Height is like holding a mirror to society's well-being. I call it biological well-being.

SHUTE: For most of America's history, that mirror has reflected well on this country. During the colonial period, people here were taller than the Europeans they left behind. But that's no longer true.

KOMLOS: The Dutch, for example, in the middle of the 19th century, were approximately two inches shorter than Americans, whereas today, they are about two inches taller.

SHUTE: Americans' height plateaued in the 1960s while the Dutch kept growing. The average Dutch man is now almost 6-foot-1.

KOMLOS: The medical system in Holland is much more inclusive than the American one. And not only that, they take very good care of expectant mothers.

SHUTE: On a personal level, height reflects not just health but also economic success. Taller people tend to be smarter and to earn more. That's one reason everybody's happy that Wayne is growing so tall. For each of us, the goal is to reach our genetic height potential, even if you're as short as Napoleon.

ANDREAS SCHICK: If you've reached your maximum height, that probably means you've also reached your maximum physical and mental development.

SHUTE: Andreas Schick, a graduate student in economics at Ohio State University, is studying why taller people earn more.

SCHICK: Your body has grown as much as it possibly can and your brain has grown as much as it possibly can. And that helps you reach your maximum potential, whether that be intellectually or socially.

SHUTE: Reaching your maximum potential, that's just what parents the world over want for their children. Dr. Rana remembers when he was growing up in Pakistan, his parents did everything they could to get him to grow.

RANA: You know, height is a very special interest of mine because my mother took me to every doctor to get me to become taller.


SHUTE: His dad, who had missed out on jobs because he was short, made sure his son drank lots of milk.

RANA: Milk was the big thing when I was growing up, so my father, he had his own cows; he managed to keep it in the garage.

SHUTE: And it worked. Rana grew to be as tall as his father, even though if you ask him how tall he is, he'll hedge it.

RANA: I still tell everybody I'm five 5 1/2 but I think I may be more five 4 1/2 or closer to it.


SHUTE: But not all children get that chance to reach their potential and that makes John Komlos worried about the future.

KOMLOS: A population that has not taken care of their children and youth is going to be in difficulties in a generation or two.

SHUTE: In Washington, D.C., Dr. Rana says that may already be happening.

RANA: You would be shocked how many kids go without food in this town, the most powerful town. And, you know, what you have to do is go to clinics like ours and you need just ask people, did you have a meal today?

SHUTE: Nancy Shute, NPR News.


Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.