June 14, 2001 -- Being tall may make it easier to score baskets and look good in certain clothes. But statistical analyses show that taller people, on average, also tend to live longer lives than shorter people.
Have taller people always had that advantage?
To answer that question, British researchers analyzed 490 sets of adult skeletal remains from an excavation site at a church in Barton on Humber in northeastern England.
Researchers at the University of Bristol, led by David Gunnell, a senior lecturer in epidemiology and public health, compared the estimated age of the deceased to the length of their long bones in the body.
Longer Bones, Longer Lifespans in Old Europe
Gunnell used the long bones, such as the femur (leg) and humerus (arm), as surrogates for height. "The longer the bones, the more likely the person was taller," he says.
Since the bones were anonymous, without gravestones or records, archaeologists determined the lifespan of the deceased using molar erosion and pubic bone data. They also estimated the dead had been buried sometime between the ninth and 19th century.
Gunnell found that short bones were a marker for a short life — 178 men and 123 women died before age 45 and 124 men and 94 women died before age 30.
"For all bones examined, the odds of death before the age of 30 decreased as bone length increased," the researchers say.
Taller people tend to live longer because of economic and health reasons, Gunnell says.
But even among people of the same social class, taller people still do better than shorter ones, he says, leading researchers to believe that nutritional deficiencies and/or disease early in life — both of which can influence growth — determine later health.
The differences in lifespan are subtle and found at the extremes of height, Gunnell says. Predicting any particular person's chance of dying due to height is difficult because so many other factors, such as weight, disease and smoking, come into play.
The research is published in the current issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
Also True in Western Hemisphere
Such studies are important Gunnell and other experts say because they provide indicators of the relative health of society.
Historically, among the peoples in the Western hemisphere, lowland living Mayans were the shortest and died relatively earlier because they did not eat enough animal protein and suffered from diseases living in congested areas, says Michael Haines, economic professor at Colgate University and an expert in body measurement and outcome issues.
The Northern Plains' equestrian hunters were the tallest and lived longer because they were meat-eaters, had long birth intervals and moved around a lot, he says.
Height differences today are still important, reflecting information about health status. "Americans will be surprised to learn that they are no longest the tallest people on Earth," says Haines, adding that Americans also have a high infant mortality rate. "We are the wealthiest country in the world. We should be the tallest."