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The long and short of it: How Africans have become shorter since the 1960s

Posted by African Press International on August 14, 2016

DOROTHY OTIENO -1 | Jumapili, Agosti 14, 2016

Kenyans are shorter they were at independence, even if they are now healthier and live for longer, according to a new study.

While the average Kenyan man is four centimetres taller than he was a century ago and the average woman is two centimetres taller, they are shorter than they were from 1962 to 1970, when the highest average Kenyan height was recorded.

A Kenyan man who travels to Latvia will find that women there are as tall as he is, yet a century ago, the average woman in Latvia was shorter than a Kenyan woman.

Mr Average stands at about 170 cm (5ft, 7in) tall, while Ms Average is 158 cm (5ft, 3in) tall, according to the largest ever study of global height, which recorded heights over a hundred years, from 1896 to 1996.

The best improved height in East Africa was among Burundian men whose average height improved by five cm to 167cm (5ft, 6in).

Women were at their tallest from 1961 to 1964 at 161cm (5ft, 3in), a difference of 3cm from now.

The research, which tracked growth trends in 200 countries, reveals that Kenyan men were the 46th tallest men on the planet a century ago but have slipped to 115th. A review of the data by Nation Newsplex shows the drop in the ranking was steeper for women, who fell from 25th to 120th.

In contrast to East Asia’s impressive gains, the rise in height appeared to stop early in South Asia and reverse in Africa, diminishing Africa’s earlier advantage over Asia.

For people born after the early 1960s, adult height decreased, or at best remained the same, in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. In Kenya, Niger, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Uganda, height decreased by around 5cm.

The same reversal seems to have happened more for men, and less for women in some Central Asian countries like Azerbaijan, and in the Middle East and North Africa, such as in Egypt and Yemen.


The documented rise in stunted growth in children across Sub-Saharan Africa, which continued to the mid-1990s, may have carried forward to adulthood and may be affecting health in the region.

“The early African advantage over Asia may also have been partly due to a more diverse diet compared to the vegetable and cereal diet in Asia, partly facilitated by lower population density,” the study states, adding that this advantage may have also been undermined by rising populations, coupled with worsening economic status during structural adjustment programmes.

The largest gainers in adult height over the past century were South Korean women, who became 20cm taller, while Iranian men experienced the largest “growth spurt” among men, growing 17cm taller.

On average, South Korean women are 5ft, 4inches tall while the average Iranian man is 5ft 8 inches tall.

The world’s tallest populations live in Europe. With average heights exceeding 183 cm (6ft) Dutch men are the tallest people on earth, while Latvian women with an average height of 170 cm (5ft, 7in) tower over females from all other countries.

Eighteen of the 20 countries with the tallest women are European, as are 19 of the 20 counties with the world’s tallest men.

Dutch men are 13cm taller than Kenyan men, while Latvian women are 23 cm taller than Kenyan women.

The shortest men on earth are found in East Timor 160cm (5ft 3in), while the planet’s shortest women are in Guatemala, a position they also held back in 1896.

A century ago the average Guatemalan woman was 4ft 7in. Today she has improved by about nine cm to 4ft 11inches, the same as a well-nourished 10-year-old girl according to international standards.

The United States, which had the world’s third-tallest men and fourth-tallest women in 1896, has now fallen behind its European counterparts

While height is determined by genetics, non-genetic factors such as foetal growth, nutrition and infections during childhood and adolescence also influence adult height. Children and adolescents who are malnourished, or who suffer from serious diseases, will generally grow up to be shorter adults.

Past studies have linked being taller to higher life expectancy and fewer pregnancy-related complications and cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. “There is also evidence that taller people on average have higher education, earnings, and possibly even social position,” states the study.

However, being taller has also been related to a few negative outcomes including higher risk of some cancers.

Malnourished, stunted and underweight children go on to earn 20 per cent less in adulthood according to a 2008 Lancet review of cohort studies from Brazil, Guatemala, India, the Philippines and South Africa.

A cohort study follows participants through a certain period of their lives, which in this particular study was from childhood to adulthood.

For Kenya to overcome its height challenge it will need to redouble its efforts in reducing malnutrition. Twenty-six per cent of children under age five, or one in four, are stunted, according to the 2014 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey.

An examination of national malnutrition statistics by Newsplex reveals that efforts to reduce malnutrition have had mixed results since 2000, when 35 per cent, or just over one in three children were stunted. The figure dropped to 28 per cent in 2003 but went up to 30 per cent in 2008.

Malnutrition can lead to irreversible brain and body damage if it is not treated before the age of two.

The pace of growth in height has not been uniform over the past century. In English speaking western countries like United Kingdom and the United States, and some North European countries like Finland, the growth has plateaued for two to three decades.

The United States, which had the world’s third-tallest men and fourth-tallest women in 1896, has now fallen behind its European counterparts after having had the smallest gain in height of any high-income country. Americans are now the 37th tallest men and 42nd tallest women in the world


Ranked 61st in the world, at an average height of 174 cm (5ft, 9in), Libyan men tower over everyone else in Africa. The tallest women on the continent are found in Senegal at an average height of 162.5cm (5ft, 4in).

Despite the declines in height, East Africans are slightly taller than they were in 1896. Similar to Kenya, the height of the average Tanzanian man increased by four cm to 164cm (5ft, 5in) over a century, while the average Tanzanian woman is 5cm taller at 156cm (5ft, 1in).

Uganda men and women are now three cm taller at 165cm (5ft, 5in) and 156cm (5.1in) respectively.

The best improved height in East Africa was among Burundian men whose average height improved by five cm to 167cm (5ft, 6in). Burundian women also grew taller by three cm to 154 cm (5ft 1in).

The smallest increase in height in the region was among Rwandese. The height of average Rwandese men increased by three cm to 163cm (5ft,4in) while that of women grew by two cm from 155cm (5ft,1in).

The study reveals the difference between the shortest and tallest countries is about 20 cm for both men and women. This means there are large differences between countries in terms of nutrition and the risk of developing some diseases.

The study shows the potential of using height as an indicator of human development. A better understanding why height has changed in different countries by different amounts can be used to improve nutrition and health across the world.

The study, titled A century of trends in adult human heights, adds it would also be valuable to understand how much becoming taller has been responsible for improved health and longevity throughout the world

Nation news Kenya


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