Does Social Variation in Child Height Reveal Underlying Health Risks?

We tend to think of a person’s height as genetically determined but environment plays a major role in both the velocity of growth in childhood and ultimate or peak height attained in adulthood. Good evidence of the power of our environment to determine height can be found in the average height of European populations which Cole (2000) estimates has been increasing by between 10 and 30mm per decade since the 19th Century. This increase in average height reflects the growing improvement in living standards over the last century. But average population height gone up as well as down depending on the prevailing environment. In Britain during the industrial revolution, the long working hours for children inside the new factory system coupled with a diet poor in protein, vitamins and minerals led to a decrease in the height of the working class and a fall in the average height of the population overall (Floud et al 1990). Environment continues to have a role in determining height into the present.

A number of studies have shown that individuals from more deprived social backgrounds are significantly shorter than their more advantaged peers (Galobardes et al, 2012; Howe et al, 2012; Li et al, 2004; Patel et al, 2011; Matijasevich et al, 2012). Unfortunately, these differences in height are not just cosmetic and have very real consequences for individuals in terms of their health and life expectancy. For example, shorter stature has been shown to be associated with higher rates of cardiovascular disease in adulthood, markers of biological ageing and a shorter life expectancy (Paajanan et al 2010; Gunnell et al 2003). Since a person stops growing in their teenage years, the association of height and later health suggests that differences in health and life expectancy in older age may be explained in part by environmental exposures in childhood. If so, child height and growth velocity can act as a proxy for the underlying health of the individual and the impact of the social environment on this. If this hypothesis is true we should see a growing gap between children of different social groups as they age. On the other hand, if these inequalities in height are defined from an early age, perhaps before birth, we should see stability in social differentials as the child ages. To date, researchers have not had a large enough pool of children available with good measures of social position to study these two hypotheses. LIFEPATH provides an opportunity to do so using pooled data from across a number of countries.

In this study we will be pooling data from British, Irish, Portuguese and Finish cohort studies of children to examine patterns of child height/length from the age of 9 months up to the late teenage years. After providing a descriptive account of social group differences in height be age we will then examine the role of different factors in explaining height differentials at different ages.  


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Publication date: 
Monday, November 23, 2015