Italians Are Getting Taller

June 14, 2013

Height is increasing throughout Europe because of improved living standards, but this is happening at a faster rate in the south (including Italy) where poverty and poor health were much worse, and people were shorter as a result.

This paper presents new evidence on the evolution of adult height in 10 European countries for cohorts born between 1950 and 1980 using the European Community Household Panel (ECHP), which collects height data from Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. Our findings show a gradual increase in adult height across all countries. However, countries from Southern Europe (Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain) experienced greater gains in stature than those located in Northern Europe (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, and Sweden).


Three main features of these data stand out. First, we find that heights in all countries increased during this period. Second, the average stature in the Northern European countries is higher than in the Southern ones for all the cohorts and for both males and females. Third, the intensity of such a growth is heterogeneous: Northern versus Southern differences are visible. For instance, looking at Table 1, we see that Finnish men born in the first half of the 50’s were 177.8 cm tall, while those born in the late 70’s achieved 178.7 cm. The less than 1 cm increase by Finnish males contrasts sharply with the growth experienced by Spanish males: from 171.3 cm to 176.1 cm, almost 5 cm. In Table 2, we note that there are also huge differences between the growth experienced by Italian and Spanish women, more than 5 cm, in comparison to that of Danish women, only 1.4 cm.

This pattern of higher growth rates for both males and females in the Southern European countries becomes more evident when considering Table 3, where annual growth rates between the 1950-55 and the 1976-80 cohorts are reported (0.10% for Southern countries, 0.05% for Northern countries, and the total mean growth is 0.07%). Also we can point out that height growth rates are almost equal for males and females according to this geographical classification. There does not seem to be a clear pattern in terms of gender across countries. Some countries have experienced higher absolute gains for women (Belgium, Finland, Italy, Spain and Sweden) whereas some others have experienced greater gains for men (Austria, Denmark, Greece, Ireland and Portugal).

Considering the evolution of heights separately for the Northern and Southern European countries (Figures 1 - 4) some generalizations are evident. First, for the Northern countries, the cohorts of Danish males are always the tallest: 180.3 cm at the beginning and 183.7 cm at the end of the period. Second, the reverse situation is shown by the Irish males, who are the shortest in the Northern Europe sample during the whole period, 174.9 cm for those born in 1950-1955 and 177.4 cm in 1976-1980. Similar qualitative results are found for females.

From the evidence in Figure 3 and Figure 4 we can conclude for the Southern European countries that Greeks are the tallest for both males and females and Portuguese are the shortest ones in both cases. Both countries show a similar evolution profile in the period under consideration. At contrast, Spanish males and females for the last cohorts are growing more significantly than those in the other Southern European countries.


Trying to measure wellbeing in a society using only one measure is a challenging task, if not an impossible one. Usually, economists consider Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita or Gross National Product (GNP) per capita as conventional measures of living standards. Consumption per capita is also used. However, the use of these indicators is not without its shortcomings. [...] Stature is a measure that can help us to circumvent these caveats, but even more important, stature is interesting in its own right: it is a useful summary measure of biological wellbeing, as emphasized by Komlos and Baur (2004). First, stature is a measure that incorporates or adjusts for individual nutritional needs (Steckel, 1995). Second, it also meets satisfactorily the criteria set forth by Morris (1979) for an international standard of physical quality of life. Third, stature is a welfare measure that satisfies the approach to the standard of living suggested by Sen (1987): functionings and capabilities should be balanced. Fourth, it generally correlates positively with many health outcomes throughout the life course, and in particular, it correlates negatively with mortality (Waaler, 1984; Barker et al. 1990). Hence, physical stature can be used as a proxy for health, which as any inherently multidimensional concept is difficult to measure.

Garcia and Quintana-Domeque. "The Evolution of Adult Height in Europe: A Brief Note". Econ Hum Biol, 2007.

Related: Height Gains in a Global Context