The poorest women in Guatemala, Honduras and other Latin American countries are significantly shorter than the richest, according to a recent study by Harvard researchers.
Adult height is a useful biological measure of the socioeconomic conditions that young children start out in. Those who spend their earliest years hungry and exposed to disease are likely to be stunted compared to the rest of the population, said S.V. Subramanian, the study’s lead author.
“These numbers show there’s a huge inequality in early life conditions in these countries,” Subramanian said.
In Guatemala, for example, height differences between the wealthiest women and the poorest was 8 centimeters or about 3 inches with the wealthiest women averaging 5 feet 1 inches and the poorest 4 feet 8 inches.
The study, published in April in the online journal PLoS One, analyzed data on 365,000 adult women in 54 poor and middle-income countries between 1994-2008. The authors only looked at women between 25 and 49-years-old to avoid counting those young and growing or old and shrinking.
Guatemala had the largest height differentials of all the countries but the gap was also significant in Honduras, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil. African nations in the study had the smallest height differentials between poor and wealthy women. Subramanian said that was due to the fact that the wealthiest women in Africa are still relatively poor.
“In Africa there are such low levels of development that everybody’s more or less equally in misery so to speak,” he said. “Whereas (Latin) America is more like the United States where you see huge wealth differences.”
Subramanian said the study illustrates that even though infant mortality rates have decreased substantially in the developing world, there is still much work to be done to improve the plight of the very poor.
“There’s been a lot of emphasis, rightly so to some extent, on the survival agenda and much less on the growth agenda,” he said. “A child has to have adequate nutrition throughout the first two years and beyond to attain the height he or she was genetically programmed to attain.”
He said other studies have shown that height can predict a person’s future socioeconomic status and that stunted women are at high risk for having stunted children.
Subramanian said there are also socioeconomic height differentials in the United States with Latinos and African Americans lagging behind Caucasians.
Among those populations, he said, the cause of stunting is more likely attributable to higher rates of teenage pregnancy and earlier onset of puberty due to childhood obesity. Both early pregnancy and early onset of menstruation, he believes, can prematurely arrest growth spurts that occur in adolescence.
Nancy Averett is a freelance writer based in Ohio.