Women’s height declining in many low-income countries

April 25, 2011 — Over the last four decades the average height of women has declined in Africa, stalled in several South American countries, and varied considerably in other low- to middle-income countries, according to a new HSPH study. The declines or stagnation are most noticeable among disadvantaged women and are thought to reflect poor nutrition, exposure to infections and other environmental factors that may stunt or hamper children’s growth.

The height of adult women provides a means to measure health and well-being of populations and provides insight into the nutritional environment and living conditions that children are exposed to in a nation, according to lead author S V Subramanian, associate professor of society, human development, and health at HSPH. Women’s height is known to be a key predictor of an offspring’s chances of survival and also their growth patterns in infancy and childhood. Further, distribution of height within a population provides useful insights into the past and future patterns of inequalities in health and well-being.

The study, “Height of Nations: A Socioeconomic Analysis of Cohort Differences and Patterns Among Women in Developing Countries,” was published online April 20, 2011 in PLoS ONE.

The researchers tracked the height of a representative sample of 364,538 women ages 25-49 in 54 countries who responded to Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) between 1994 and 2008. Countries included in the surveys ranged from Armenia and Haiti to India and Turkey.

Of the 54 countries, women’s height declined in 14 countries, all in Africa, and stayed the same in 21, including four South American nations. There was a near universal and consistent patterning in height with disadvantaged women being shorter in 52 of the 54 countries studied.

Co-authors of the study included Emre Özaltin and Jocelyn Finlay of HSPH’s Department of Global Health and Population.

Read a New York Times article on the study

Learn more

Shorter maternal height associated with more deaths among children in developing countries (HSPH press release)

Overweight primarily a problem among wealthier women in low- to middle-income countries (HSPH press release)

Department of Society, Human Development and Health