Toddlers, teenagers & terminal heights: The determinants of adult male stature Flanders 1800-76

May 2017 | 157

Authors: Ewout Depauw & Deborah Oxley

Does adult stature capture conditions at birth or at some other stage in the growth cycle? Anthropometrics is lauded as a method for capturing net nutritional status over all the growing years. However, it is frequently assumed that conditions at birth were most influential. Was this true for historical populations? This paper examines the heights of Belgian men born between 1800-76 to tease apart which moments of growth were most sensitive to disruption and reflected in final heights. It exploits two proximate crises in 1846-49 and 1853-56 as shocks that permit age effects to be revealed. These are affirmed through a study of food prices and death rates. Both approaches suggest a shift of the critical moment away from the first few years of life and towards the adolescent growth spurt as the most influential on terminal stature. Furthermore, just as height is accumulated over the growing years, conditions influencing growth need to be understood cumulatively. Economic conditions at the time of birth were not explanatory, but their collective effects from ages 11 to 18 years were strongly influential. Then, both health and nutrition mattered, in shifting degrees. Teenagers, not toddlers, should be our guides to the past.

Keywords: child growth, crisis effects, early-life health, height, nutrition, prisoners, puberty

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