The past is made of shorter people, according to new research that shows the average height of European men shot up 4.3 inches in the century from the 1870s to about 1980, despite two world wars and a Great Depression. The study reviewed data from 15 countries and found that men grew about a millimeter a year, reports the Independent. In the UK, the average height of men rose from 5' 5" to 5' 10" over the century, a rise researchers believe was largely the result of the decline of childhood diseases that had a major influence on later development, the BBC reports.
Improved sanitation and living standards are also believed to have played a role, along with smaller family sizes that made it easier for families to feed their children. "Increases in human stature are a key indicator of improvements in the average health of populations," says the lead researcher, who was unable to do similar research on female height because of a lack of data. An expert from the UK's Faculty of Public Health, however, says it would be a mistake to assume shorter men are unhealthier. "Like a lot of research, this paper prompts more questions than it set out to answer," he says. (Read more height stories.)