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Toddlers, teenagers, and terminal heights: the importance of puberty for male adult stature, Flanders, 1800-76

Journal article
Authors E. Depauw
Deborah Oxley
Published in Economic History Review
Volume 72
Issue 3
Pages 925-952
ISSN 0013-0117
Publication year 2019
Published at Department of Economics
Pages 925-952
Language en
Keywords catch-up growth, fetal origins, body-mass, health, nutrition, disease, childhood, women, life, men, Business & Economics, History, Social Sciences - Other Topics, eece ma, 1978, annals of human biology, v5, p1, eckel rh, 1986, journal of economic history, v46, p721, lfosse p, 1990, revue du nord, v72, p71, ader a, 1963, journal of pediatrics, v62, p646
Subject categories Economics and Business


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 article examines the heights of Flemish men born between 1800 and 1876 to tease apart which moments of growth were most sensitive to disruption and reflected in final heights. It exploits two proximate crises in 1846-9 and 1853-6 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. At these ages, both health and nutrition mattered, to varying degrees. Teenagers, rather than toddlers, should be our guides to the past.

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