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 Harvard School of Public Health (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.