Robert Fogel linking height with human development

Patricia Cohen of NYT reviews the upcoming book of Robert Fogel -The Changing Body: Health, Nutrition, and Human Development in the Western World Since 1700 (his paper based on ideas here) . Fogel was a 1993 Nobel winner for his work on economic history (in particular cliometrics).

He has lately been looking at health, human development issues from a historical perspective and the book has amazing findings:

For nearly three decades, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert W. Fogel and a small clutch of colleagues have assiduously researched what the size and shape of the human body say about economic and social changes throughout history, and vice versa. Their research has spawned not only a new branch of historical study but also a provocative theory that technology has sped human evolution in an unprecedented way during the past century

Next month Cambridge University Press will publish the capstone of this inquiry, “The Changing Body: Health, Nutrition, and Human Development in the Western World Since 1700,” just a few weeks shy of Mr. Fogel’s 85th birthday. The book, which sums up the work of dozens of researchers on one of the most ambitious projects undertaken in economic history, is sure to renew debates over Mr. Fogel’s groundbreaking theories about what some regard as the most significant development in humanity’s long history.

His main finding is nutrition enabled by food technology has led to taller humans and better health:

Technology rescued humankind from centuries of physical maladies and malnutrition, Mr. Fogel argues. Before the 19th century, most people were caught in an endless cycle of subsistence farming. A colonial-era farmer, for example, worked about 78 hours during a five-and-a-half-day week. People needed more food to grow and gain strength, but they were unable to produce more food without being stronger.


To take just a few examples, the average adult man in 1850 in America stood about 5 feet 7 inches and weighed about 146 pounds; someone born then was expected to live until about 45. In the 1980s the typical man in his early 30s was about 5 feet 10 inches tall, weighed about 174 pounds and was likely to pass his 75th birthday.

Across the Atlantic, at the time of the French Revolution, a 30-something Frenchman weighed about 110 pounds, compared with 170 pounds now. And in Norway an average 22-year-old man was about 5 ½ inches taller at the end of the 20th century (5 feet 10.7 inches) than in the middle of the 18th century (5 feet 5.2 inches).

Though it has its criticisms. Econs say medical advances are as important as nutrition technology:

The new book is not yet available, but experts familiar with Mr. Fogel’s work say that disagreements have arisen over his explanations for improved health in the West.  Mr. Preston agrees that technology has superpowered human evolution over the past hundred years, but in his view the prevention of infectious diseases has not received sufficient credit.

“In many parts of the world, including the United States in the 20th century, medical advances appear to be at least as important as improvements in nutritional intake,” he said.

Mr. Preston pointed in particular to public health practices — like protecting water supplies, installing sewage systems and hand washing and quarantining in hospitals — that were instituted in American cities, beginning in the 1890s. An infinite supply of food is irrelevant, for example, if you can’t prevent chronic childhood diarrhea. Height dipped in the late 18th century when poor sanitation and infectious diseases plagued crowded new cities.

Angus Deaton, an economist at Princeton University who researches health in rich and poor countries, says he admires Mr. Fogel’s work as well, but he too is skeptical about the emphasis on nutrition, as well as about some of the conclusions researchers have inferred from height.

“We don’t really understand why African adults and children are so much taller than Indian adults and children, but it can’t be their income, because Indians are much richer,” he said. India has twice the per capita income of Kenya and about three times that of Tanzania.

It has massive policy implications as investments could go both sides:

Mr. Fogel’s work could have significant consequences for determining policies for the developing world. Just last week researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health published a paper that used the height of women in 54 low- and middle-income countries to indicate how children in Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East were faring. (The answer was not good: height had stayed the same or declined, particularly in Africa, suggesting that living conditions and disease controls for children have deteriorated.)

The best way to combat such decline depends on the cause-and-effect relationships among economic growth, nutrition and health, Mr. Deaton said. If food production is the most important factor, then focusing on economic growth might be the best policy, but if infectious disease is a major reason for chronic illness and premature death, then more aggressive public health measures might also be needed.

Fascinating Stuff. Right down to the basics.  

3 Responses to “Robert Fogel linking height with human development”

  1. thomas t samaras Says:

    Re: Supersizing Humans: a bad idea for many reasons

    I have researched height and longevity for 35 years. I have worked with researchers Elrick, MD, and Lowell Storms, PhD and we have published over 36 papers or in medical and scientific journals, including the Bulletin of the World Health Organization and Acta Paediatrica. Our findings differ sharply from those of Floud, Fogel, etc. in terms of height and longevity. In addition, a world population of larger humans needs much more food, water, energy, and resources/ This increased consumption damages the environment and the economy.

    While Waaler’s study showed a higher mortality for shorter people, he did not account for differences in economic class according to Allebeck and Bergh (1992): “no data on social or economic conditions were available.” In the developed world, low income people tend to be shorter, fatter and have more coronary heart disease and diabetes.  Therefore, shorter people would have higher mortality because of their disadvantaged conditions, not their height per se. In addition, Waller’s paper showed that between 70 and 85 years of age, men over 6 feet had an increasing mortality compared to shorter men.

    My findings are primarily focused on evaluating height-longevity trends based on relatively homogeneous populations of deceased people. For example, veterans, baseball players, football players, and famous people were found to lose about .5 year per centimeter of height. A loss of .5 yr/centimeter is the same as the difference in life expectancy between US white males and females based on their height differences. Powerful support for our findings comes from animal studies; e.g., small dogs live longer than big dogs. So do small mice and rats compared to bigger ones. Caloric restriction provides the most proven method for extending longevity and this results in smaller bodies.

    I don’t know of any studies showing tall people live longer based on a million or more deaths. However, a California study of 1 million men and women found that shorter Asians had substantially lower mortality compared to taller Whites and Blacks. Latinos and East Indians had mortalities between Asians and  Whites/Blacks and their heights were also in between these two groups.  These findings are corroborated by US Government data involving over 10 million deaths. In addition, Holzenberger et al. tracked 1.3 million men over a 70-year period and found they lost .7 year per centimeter of increased height.

    While our life expectancy has increased greatly compared to 1900, this is due to sharply reduced infant and maternal mortality. And as Floud et al. have pointed out, improvements in sanitation, antibiotics and medical care have reduced mortality from infections and communicable diseases. However, the facts are that a 65 year old man in 2007 only lived 7 years longer than a 65 year old in 1900. For 75 year olds, this advantage dropped to 2 years.These added years are no doubt due to improved sanitation and enormous developments in medical science and technology-not to better health since John Hopkins University reports that about half the 65 year olds now take 5 or more medications
    per day and ~25 % take 10 to 20 medications daily. In addition, almost 70% of US adults are overweight or obese. How can this be a sign of good health? In contrast, there are many short non-developed populations that were found to be almost free of chronic diseases, such as coronary heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. And these populations didn’t have the medical care and advantages of Western populations. Okinawans have the highest percentage of centenarians and are short (males were about 5 feet and thin during their youth).

    Over the last few years, studies have shown that people exposed to famine during gestation actually had lower mortality. For example, compared to adults born after the famine, Dutch adults exposed to famine in the last trimester 
    had a substantially lower mortality around 57 years of age. Adults exposed to famine during gestation during the Great Leap Forward Famine in China (Song) actually had a longer life expectancy than those born after the famine.
    Adults born during the Great Depression also had the highest jump in life expectancy compared to more prosperous periods of the 20th century (Topia Granados). Mortality for infants and adults also dropped during the depression.

    If tall people live longer, why is that the six top populations in terms of life expectancy are relatively short compared to Scandinavians? The CIA World Factbook (2007) indicates that Andorra, Macau, Japan, San Marino, Singapore and Hong Kong have the longest life expectancies.

    I am not aware of any studies that found centenarians to be tall (> 6 feet). In fact, they are usually short and range from 4’10 to 5’’7. While most people were relatively short during the last 100+ years, there have always been tall people
    in the Western world; e.g., Presidents Washington, Jefferson and Jackson.  If Floud et al. are right, then there should be a preponderance of tall centenarians. This is not the case.

    I think your readers should be given an opportunity to read both sides of this issue and make up their own minds. In 2007, I edited a book with Dr. Bartke and Dr. Rollo: Human Body Size and the Laws of Scaling: Physiological, Performance, Growth, Longevity and Ecological Ramifications, Nova Science Publishers, NY. The book was described by a Professor of Gerontology as “Herculian task accomplished.” Another reviewer found the book presented a fair view of both sides of the arguments on height, body size and longevity.

    Links to a my March commentary published in World Nutrition (World Public Health Nutrition Association) are available from my website. You can also go to my website for a list of my publications:

    Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.


    Tom Samaras, Reventropy Associates, San Diego, Ca

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