Global height study: Dutch men and Latvian women tallest in the world, Luxembourg far off in ranking

2016 - 09 - 12

Global height study: Dutch men and Latvian women tallest in the world, Luxembourg far off in ranking

A large consortium of scientists, including senior researcher Dr Ala’a Alkerwi from LIH’s Department of Population Health, participated in an international study to assess the evolution of human height worldwide between 1914 and 2014. Whereas 100 years ago, Swedish men and Bosnian women were the tallest in the world, Dutch men and Latvian women have now taken the first position. Luxembourg is not part of the top 25 ranking that contains though its neighbouring countries.

Being taller presents many advantages. It is associated with enhanced longevity, higher education and earnings, and lower risk for cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. However, the risk of getting some types of cancer (e.g. ovarian and prostate) was shown to be higher. Height is a heritage trait, but can also be influenced by environmental factors such as foetal growth, nutrition and infections during childhood.

A large-scale collaborative effort

This study was led by Imperial College London, UK, was carried out in collaboration with the World Health Organisation and included almost 800 scientists from the Non-Communicable Diseases Risk Factor Collaboration NCD-RisC network. The results were published in the high-impact Open Access journal eLife.

The network analysed data from population-based studies where height measurements were collected from over 200 countries and territories. Part of the Luxembourg data was provided by LIH’s Department of Population Health. Dr Alkerwi comments: ‘It is of key importance to our department to contribute to such global-scale studies. Luxembourg data were available from adult participants to the first nationwide epidemiological study ORISCAV-LUX, in which the height was one of the assessed parameters.’

Top and bottom of the height list

 The researchers found that the current top 3 countries of tallest 18-year-old men are the Netherlands (mean 182.5 cm), Belgium and Estonia. The top 3 countries of tallest 18-year-old women are Latvia (mean 169.8 cm), the Netherlands and Estonia. The top 10 tallest nations in 2014 are dominated by European countries. On the other end of the ranking, the countries with the lowest height are Laos, Yemen and Timor-Leste (mean 159.8 cm) for men and Bangladesh, Philippines, Guatemala (mean 149.4 cm) for women. Regarding Luxembourg’s population, men are on position 28 with an average of 177.9 cm and women on position 37 with an average of 164.4 cm. The rank did almost not vary in the last 100 years.

The difference between the tallest and shortest nations in the world is currently about 23 cm for men – an increase of 4 cm on the height gap compared to 100 years ago. The height difference between the world’s tallest and shortest countries for women has remained the same across the century, at about 20 cm. Likewise, the height difference between men and women has remained almost unchanged over 100 years with 11-12 cm.

Some nations growing, some shrinking

Surprisingly, once-tall US has declined from 3rd tallest men and 4th tallest women in the world one century ago to 37th and 42nd place, respectively. Moreover, some countries have stopped growing over the past 30-40 years, despite showing initial increases in the beginning of the century of study. The US was one of the first high-income countries to reach a plateau, a similar pattern is seen for Luxembourg. By contrast, Spain and Italy and many countries in Latin America and East Asia are still increasing in height. In sub-Saharan Africa, some nations have been shrinking, probably due to malnutrition. The average height of young people has decreased by as much as 5 cm in the last 40 years for example in Sierra Leone, Uganda and Rwanda. The gap between the shortest and tallest countries remains considerable and needs more investigation to conceive ways of reducing the disparities in health that still persist globally.

Link to open access publication “A century of trends in adult human height

Interactive website with height maps and country-by-country data to visualise and download: