TUESDAY, Sept. 3, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- The average European man is roughly four inches taller than men living in Europe 100 years ago, a new study finds.
Gains in male height began occurring early in the past century, between World War I and World War II, as well as during the Great Depression, the researchers found.
The reasons for the steady growth in stature is probably linked to declines in infant mortality rates, smaller family size, more sanitary living conditions and better overall health education, the study authors said.
"Increases in human stature are a key indicator of improvements in the average health of populations," researcher Timothy Hatton, a professor of economics at the University of Essex and the Research School of Economics at Australian National University in Canberra, said in a news release.
Fewer illnesses, "as reflected in the fall in infant mortality, is the single most important factor driving the increase in height," Hatton added.
The study, published online Sept. 1 in the journal, Oxford Economic Papers, used data on adult men aged around 21 who were born between 1870 and 1980 from 15 European countries, including Britain and Ireland, the Scandinavian countries, Netherlands, Austria, Belgium and Germany.
The information was compiled from a variety of sources, including surveys and military recruiting records. The researchers noted that the study focused on men since there is little historical data on women's heights.
Infant death rates fell from an average of 178 per 1,000 between 1871 and 1875 to 120 per 1,000 between 1911 and 1915. Infant death rates then dropped dramatically to 41 per 1,000 by 1951, and to 14 per 1,000 between 1976 and 1980.
Although the period between the two World Wars and the Great Depression predates many modern medical advances and improvements in health services, the researchers pointed out there was also a strong downward trend in fertility during this time period. Smaller family sizes have been linked to increasing height, the team said.
A rise in income levels, more hygenic living conditions and better overall education about health and nutrition and improvements in social services and health systems may also have played a role in the increase in the average height of European men, they added.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information on average U.S. body measurements.