Land of the Giants: Dutch Tower over Americans

Americans are getting shorter, but does height equal health for the Dutch?

January 8, 2009, 12:28 AM

June 19, 2007 — -- When you think tall, you probably think America. Tallest buildings. Tallest athletes. Tallest population.

But no longer. A new study, conducted by the University of Munich and Princeton University, discovered that when it comes to height, Americans are coming up short -- literally.

The study found that partially because of lifestyle, America has the shortest population in the industrialized world.

Today, to find the world's tallest people, you have to look beyond the windmills, wooden shoes, and wheels of cheese … to tiny Holland.

That's right. The Dutch. And they're not just taller than Americans, they're towering over Americans.

In Amsterdam, even at six-foot-three, I had to get used to looking up, especially to the president of the Dutch Tall People's Club, six-foot-11 Paul van Sprundel.

When I asked Paul whether there's a part of him who looks down and says "Well, Holland is doing a lot better than America," he said without blinking an eye, "Well, a lot better. I don't know, but, you know, a lot of people from their own perspective, in their own country, say, 'I am tall,' and then they meet us and say, 'Whoa, you're really tall.'"

It turns out Americans haven't been the tallest people in the world for nearly 50 years. And even worse, every year, we're falling shorter of the top.

Today, the average Dutch man is six-foot-one, followed by the Danish, at six-feet. Americans measure up to just five-foot-10. Further behind, but catching up rapidly, are the Japanese, at about five-foot-seven.

You can see the growth of the Dutch etched into the architecture in Amsterdam. In buildings built in the 1600s, I can barely get through the door bending over.

But as the generations passed and the Dutch people grew, so did their doorways. Today, the new minimum required height for doorways to homes and businesses is seven feet, eight inches, which made me feel really short wherever I went.

A nation's average height is about more than bragging rights. Historians have found height to be about the best single indicator of a nation's success, reflecting not just wealth but overall health and well-being.

Professor George Maat of Holland's Leiden University has been tracing this back hundreds of years by looking at our ancestors' skeletons.

"Health, nutrition, living conditions, genetics -- everything at the end goes down to one thing that represents all of that, and that is stature," he said. "And I think that is the easiest parameter to use to follow the conditions people are living in."

And so, at the height of the Roman empire, the Romans were the tallest in the world. The Americans led for about 200 years, really taking off during the frontier years. And now the Dutch and Scandinavians rule.

So the question is, "What are they doing right?"

Scientists have pinpointed two secrets to Holland's soaring population.

First, the Dutch have some of the world's best healthcare, particularly at the stages of life that really make a difference for how tall we end up -- prenatal and the early years of childhood.

Second, they spread the health around. The most well-off Americans are tall, but less-privileged groups across all races bring down the average.

Our waistbands drag us down, as well. By eating so much, we produce too much growth hormone, too early in our lives. And so we stop growing earlier than the Dutch, who eat lots of protein like milk and cheese, but not too much.

Today, the Dutch are growing so fast, they're outgrowing their country. Paul van Sprundel has trouble fitting in -- literally: He has trouble squeezing into cars, public trains and even today's doorways.

Next to him, that giant of Dutch history, the artist Vincent van Gogh, looks miniscule at five-seven, the average height when he died in 1890.

"An awful lot has changed," said van Sprundel. "On average, every 10 years, we grow 2 centimeters -- almost an inch."

For Agnes Brunninkhuis and her daughter Brit, it's all gone too far. Brit is already five-foot-two at the age of seven. When doctors said she could grow as tall as six-foot-eight, Agnes considered treating her with hormones to stem her growth.

"I try to protect her by explaining it's not bad to be tall," said Agnes Brunninkhuis. "You should walk up straight and everything. Luckily for her, life is different now. Now, you can buy bigger beds and larger clothing, and there are special shops."

Despite the growing pains, it's nearly all good news for the Dutch. Tall people have lots of advantages: They earn more, they are elected more often, they are luckier at love and they live longer. That's another way America at number 28 in the world for life expectancy just doesn't measure up -- certainly not to the soaring Dutch.