Why Have Americans Stopped Growing Taller?

ByABC News
July 2, 2001, 1:16 PM

July 3 -- There was a time when most American children were expected to outgrow their parents.

Since data on Americans' average height was first collected in the early 20th century, children and adolescents grew about an inch and a half taller every 20 years. But recent measurements suggest Americans' average height has more or less hit the ceiling.

Data collected from the federal Centers for Disease Control show that average height for Americans has stabilized in the past 50 years to about 5 feet 9 inches for men and 5 feet 4 inches for women.

"We've pretty well maxed out in terms of stature. There's been little change in adult height over last generation," says William Leonard, an anthropologist at Northwestern University.

You Are What You Eat

The reason, explains Leonard, is most Americans now face few nutritional or health-related stresses in their youth. People grow most as infants and then as adolescents, and most Americans have avoided disease and eaten enough meat and milk in their youth to reach their genetic height potentials.

But Leonard is quick to point out that while overall U.S. height averages have more or less stabilized, there are small pockets of the population where slight increases in height are likely still happening (small enough not to greatly affect overall averages).

Zero in on immigrant populations, he says, and on communities where socio-economic constraints lead to malnutrition and health-care problems, and generations of new children continue to grow taller since height maximums have not yet been reached.

"There is large heterogeneity in ethic compositions," he says. "When you look at Asian-Americans, Hispanic Americans those are the pockets where increases in height are still happening."

Studies dating from the 1930s have demonstrated how a person's environment and in turn nutrition can directly affect not only a person's size, but also dimensions.

In analyses done on European immigrants to the United States and their children 60 years ago, researchers showed immigrant children born in the United States were taller and had larger heads and broader facial features than their foreign-born parents and siblings who were born abroad.