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News Release

August 16, 2005

Economic Changes Affect Height, Profs Say

The average height of Canadians may be increasing, but Canada was once part of a 19th-century global trend of decreasing height and economics may have been to blame, according to University of Guelph professors.

Kris Inwood, Department of Economics, and John Cranfield, Department of Agricultural Economics and Business, are charting the height of Canadians throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. They say that records of stature are the only real indicator of the physical standard of living prior to the 20th century and offer evidence of how social and economic conditions affect physical well-being.

The researchers found that height has increased steadily throughout the 20th century, based on surveys of school-aged children and government studies. But records from a century earlier show a decline in national average stature starting in about 1840.

For example, military records of Canadian soldiers in the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War show people born in the 1840s were shorter than those born in the 1830s and earlier.

Records of Boer War troops indicate further decline in stature in people born in the 1880s. This decline continued until the 1890s, according to Word War I enlistment documents. Federal penitentiary records also provide confirmation of the downward trend in the height before 1900.

Industrialization and market integration may explain this lost height, said Inwood. As industrialization improved transportation and raised population densities, infectious diseases spread more easily and the need to fight of disease likely diminished the energy available for physical growth.

As well, the price of food relative to manufactured commodities increased. "When the cost of food increases relative to other goods around them, people don't buy food in the quantity they once did," Inwood said. "This could have had a significant impact on an individual's height if the food was one critical to human growth. These two factors played an inhibiting role in an individual's ability to grow during the 19th century," he said.

Prof. Kris Inwood
Department of Economics
(519) 824-4120, Ext. 53536/

Prof. John Cranfield
Department of Agricultural Economics and Business
(519) 824-4120, Ext. 53708/

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt (519) 824-4120, Ext. 53338, or Rebecca Kendall, Ext. 56982.

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