What’s Height Got to Do with It?

October 21, 2009 | | Comments Off on What’s Height Got to Do with It?

Anyone who has taken the time to stroll around the arms and armor section of an art museum or who has carefully studied the size of a bed in a historical home easily comes to the same conclusion: the average person was a lot shorter in the past than he is now! A suit of armor intended for a fully grown man can often appear adequate for a fifteen-year old boy of today. Interestingly, the reasons for the relatively short statures of our forefathers provide us with a fascinating insight into how we can solve some of the health issues our country faces today.

A recent article in The New York Times discusses the importance of thinking about height in the current healthcare debates.* (Most studies deem a person “short” when they are under average height [5’10” for men and 5’4” for women].) It is practically common knowledge that Americans have gotten bigger in terms of girth. A fact that is not well known is that in comparison to other Western countries, where people are getting taller on average, people in the United States are staying the same height; some studies seem to suggest that Americans may even be getting shorter. Although obesity, i.e. thick waistlines, has been heralded as a major cause of sickness and death in this country, costing around one trillion dollars a year for Medicare, there are also substantial positive correlations between shortness and health problems.

Before any vertically-challenged people start raising their eyebrows, it is important to consider the many similarities between obesity and shortness. Many health issues that are often associated with being overweight are also attributed to being short. Short people are more likely than their taller counterparts to develop heart disease, stroke or diabetes, and short people, on average, do not live as long as those who are of average height or taller.

There are also similar connections between short people and obese people in terms of their professional success and levels of education. Both short people and obese people earn less money at work, and short people, like obese people, are less likely to finish college. Another study has found that the lower education and pay levels of short people cause them, on average, to be less happy than people who are of average height or taller.

Finally, the causes of shortness and obesity are similar. The causes of obesity and shortness both involve a complex mixture of poor health in childhood, genes, and social class. Many studies have shown that a regular childhood exposure to malnutrition, stress, poverty, and disease lead to both shortness and obesity.

The question then arises: how can we use these many similarities between obesity and shortness to find a solution to the poor state of health in the United States?

Because of their similar causes and positive correlations with health issues, we should strongly consider a policy that works to prevent both thickness and shortness. A policy that merely focuses on shrinking our waistlines will not sufficiently prevent shortness (and it is questionable how well it works to prevent/counter obesity). Preventing shortness is not as simple as going on a diet or penalizing companies that produce less-than-nutritious food. Instead of focusing so narrowly on discouraging certain behaviors through taxation and similar techniques, our goal should be to educate and improve the quality of life of our citizens from infancy. Since both obesity and shortness result from childhood exposures to stress, malnutrition, etc, our efforts should focus on promoting the consumption of fruits and other healthy foods in the home. In addition, more money should be put into education in an effort to alleviate poverty and other stressors from the environment.

Our nation’s state of health is grave, and it can often seem like an impossible problem to solve. Focusing on diets and regulation of food content is not enough to solve our country’s issues. We need to focus more on the big picture and address issues where they start instead of getting bogged down in details and regulations.

*To make sure ample credit is given, this blogger would like to make it clear that most of the factual information and policy recommendations in this blog entry are simply summaries of the contents of the referenced New York Times article with some additional supplemental material.


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