100-Year Study Identifies Countries With Tallest People on the Planet

August 1, 2016 | Reece Alvarez

tallest man
Photo credit: Paille/flickr (CC by SA 2.0)

And height may say a lot about a country's health status. 

Recently published findings from a 100-year-long study suggest that as of 2014, the tallest people on Earth largely hail from European nations, with the tallest men coming from the Netherlands and the tallest women found in Latvia.

The global study, A century of trends in adult human height was published on July 26 in the journal eLife, produced by a research team of nearly 800 scientists working with the World Health Organization and a variety of data sources including military records, population surveys and health studies.

Based on height records for 18-year-olds from 1914 through 2014, at an average height of 5’12” (182.5cm), Dutch men were the tallest on the planet and Latvian women, averaging 5’7” (170cm), were found to be the tallest.

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In particular, European and Eastern European countries in particular dominated the list of nations with the tallest men and women.

Of the top 25 tallest men in the world, Australians were the only non-european nationality listed in 2014, according to the study.

Many of the tallest nations saw significant changes in the average height of their populations over the course of the study.

According to the paper, these are the nations with the tallest men in 2014 (1914 ranking in brackets):

1. Netherlands (12)

2. Belgium (33)

3. Estonia (4)

4. Latvia (13)

5. Denmark (9)

6. Bosnia and Herzegovina (19)

7. Croatia (22)

8. Serbia (30)

9. Iceland (6)

10. Czech Republic (24)

The nations with the tallest women in 2014 (1914 ranking in brackets):

1. Latvia (28)

2. Netherlands (38)

3. Estonia (16)

4. Czech Republic (69)

5. Serbia (93)

6. Slovakia (26)

7. Denmark (11)

8. Lithuania (41)

9. Belarus (42)

10. Ukraine (43)

According to the study, in 2014, the shortest men were found in Southeast Asian nation of East Timor, with an average height of 5’3” (160cm). Guatemalan women in Central America were the shortest women at an average of 4’10” (149cm).

While the study is an interesting overview of human height across the globe, it reveals more than just which countries have the tallest people, as there are correlations between height and health, according to the study’s lead researcher Majid Ezzati, a professor from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London.

“This study gives us a picture of the health of nations over the past century, and reveals the average height of some nations may even be shrinking while others continue to grow taller,” said Ezzati in an eLife media release. “This confirms we urgently need to address children and adolescents’ environment and nutrition on a global scale, and ensure we’re giving the world’s children the best possible start in life.”

According to the research in eLife, in addition to genetic factors, height is strongly influenced by nutrition and environment and can have far reaching health impacts.

“Children and adolescents who are better nourished and live in better environments tend to be taller, and height may even be influenced by a mother’s health and nutrition during pregnancy,” according to eLife. “It has lifelong consequences for health and even education and earnings. Some research suggests people who are taller tend to live longer, gain a better education and even earn more. However, being tall may carry some health risks, as studies have linked height to a greater risk of certain cancers including ovarian and prostate.”

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The study also revealed geographic disparities, particularly between advanced and developing countries.

“Our study also shows the English-speaking world, especially the USA, is falling behind other high-income nations in Europe and Asia Pacific,” Ezzati said. “Together with the poor performance of these countries in terms of obesity, this emphasises the need for more effective policies towards healthy nutrition throughout life.”

Over the past 30 to 40 years, the average height of the populations in high-income nations, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Finland and Japan, has stopped growing, despite increasing at the start of the study.

For example, the U.S. — once the having the third tallest men and the fourth tallest women in the world — has fallen to 37th for men and 42nd place for women.

The study found the average height of men and women in Italy and Spain, as well as much of East Asia and Latin America, is increasing. However, over the past three to four decades, certain countries in North Africa, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, have had their population’s average height decline.

“The most striking finding is that despite the huge increases in height seen in some countries, there is still a considerable gap between the shortest and tallest countries,” said Mary De Silva, head of population, environment and health at the Wellcome Trust, which co-funded the study. “More research is needed to understand the reasons for this gap and to help devise ways of reducing the disparities in health that still persist globally.”

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