The average height is a clear indicator of the quality of life of a population, to check it you only need to stand at the door of a private school in a wealthy urbanization and then at the entrance of a public school in a poor neighborhood. Height is “the mirror of the condition of society”, according to the classic definition of the British pediatrician James Tanner.
Historically, the height of young people called up served to carry out an exhaustive follow-up of the height of citizens, but the end of compulsory military service in Spain in 2001 left the scientific community without this valuable record. A team of researchers has now squeezed the individual data from the national health surveys of the Ministry of Health and has obtained a devastating result: among men born in the 1990s, university students measure three centimeters more than those who only have studies of primary. In women, this difference reaches two centimeters.
Sociologist Antonio David Cámara, from the University of Jaén, puts his results into context. “Three centimeters on average is brutal,” he warns. Camera invites you to look at the average height of men in their thirties today: 176 centimeters. If three centimeters are subtracted from that figure, the result is what those born in the 1960s measure. Three centimeters equals decades of socioeconomic development. “A poor person today would have the average height of the male population in the 1960s,” summarizes the sociologist.
The Chamber team has dug into nine national surveys and two similar European ones – all of them periodic investigations based on personal interviews in homes – carried out since 1987 by some 74,000 people, who were between 23 and 47 years old at the time of responding. Its results, despite everything, are relatively positive, because they show that inequality has been reduced. Among men born in the 40s, university students are 4.5 centimeters taller than those with only primary education. In women there is not even data, because they barely had access to university.
The researchers have meticulously aggregated the scattered data from the surveys and have grouped people by their five years of birth, also taking into account their level of education and the occupation of the “head of the family” (the person with the highest income), traditional indicators indirect socioeconomic status. Society, in general, has improved. Men born in the 80s are five centimeters taller than those born in the 40s. In women, such growth only reaches two centimeters.
Trends in average height by educational level
Cámara’s hypothesis is that “women are biologically better equipped creatures, more resilient”, so the adverse conditions of the first half of the 20th century affected men’s height more. “What has happened in these forty-odd years is that normal values of sexual dimorphism have been reached”, underlines the sociologist. “Never in the history of Spain has there been as much equality between the sexes as now. And there has never been such a difference in height between men and women, ”he says. “A Spanish woman of the present is considerably taller than a Spanish man of the mid-19th century,” he adds.
The study, published in the specialized journal SSM – Population Health, highlights that height, after sustained growth, “stagnated and even decreased” in those born in the 1990s. Spaniards, apparently, are stopping growing. Dutch biologist Gert Stulp of the University of Groningen is not surprised by the results of the new work, in which he was not involved. “We see this flattening in the evolution of height across Europe. There are also recent reports that the Dutch are shrinking in the Netherlands, which is the highest country on the planet,” explains Stulp. “Our environment may not actually be getting better. Our diets, for example, are not necessarily better, and our lifestyles are not healthier: we are growing wide instead of tall”, reflects the researcher.
At age 19, men in the Netherlands are close to 184 centimeters on average, while women exceed 170 centimeters, according to a study published two years ago by the Spanish biotechnologist Andrea Rodríguez, from Imperial College London. In Spain, men of that age reach an average of 176 centimeters, compared to 162 centimeters for women. “In the Netherlands, one can speculate that there are biological limits that prevent the human body from growing much larger, in the same way that people will never be able to run 100 meters in five seconds,” argues the Dutch biologist. “If the Netherlands has reached that limit, then it is also clear that Spain has not yet reached it”, ditch Stulp.