Princeton economist Angus Deaton estimates that it will take 500 years for Indian women to reach the height of English women.
In The Great Escape, Dr. Deaton explains that a population could be short because of nutrition or disease. When babies consume inadequate calories or diets with too little fat, their development suffers. And even if they survived substandard sanitation or pests or no vaccines, still, disease would have stunted their growth.
Looking back at Europe, we can see that short populations have grown but it takes awhile. Mid-19th century European men (there is little data for women because military records are the source) averaged 5′ 5 1/2″. Slightly more than a century later, their counterparts were 5′ 10 1/2″. For the Netherlands, a fast growing country, the increase averaged slightly more than a 1/2 inch a decade. Dr. Deaton says the increase was from less disease and the improved nutrition that higher income creates.
Dr. Deaton predicts that contemporary short populations will catch up with those who are taller in richer nations. However, even if nutrition is much better and childhood diseases have been eradicated, it takes many years for populations to achieve their biological potential because “tiny mothers cannot have large children.”
Then, just when you expect all taller people to live in richer countries and the short populations to be poorer Dr. Deaton says, “It is not quite that simple.” Researchers are not sure why certain African populations are taller than South Asians and many Latin Americans.
Angus Deaton’s graphic ideally conveys height data about populations:
Our bottom line is human capital. Discussed from a GDP perspective by David Landes in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, good health can fuel economic growth.
Sources and Resources: My facts and ideas are from Angus Deaton’s The Great Escape: Health Wealth and the Origins of Inequality and his Econtalk interview. For more about height in developed countries, econlife looked at the connection between taller people and success.