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Distributional change of women’s adult height in low- and middle-income countries over the past half century: An observational study using cross-sectional survey data

11 May 2018

by Jewel Gausman, Ivan Meija Guevara, S. V. Subramanian, Fahad Razak


Adult height reflects childhood circumstances and is associated with health, longevity, and maternal–fetal outcomes. Mean height is an important population metric, and declines in height have occurred in several low- and middle-income countries, especially in Africa, over the last several decades. This study examines changes at the population level in the distribution of height over time across a broad range of low- and middle-income countries during the past half century.

Methods and findings

The study population comprised 1,122,845 women aged 25–49 years from 59 countries with women’s height measures available from four 10-year birth cohorts from 1950 to 1989 using data from the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) collected between 1993 and 2013. Multilevel regression models were used to examine the association between (1) mean height and standard deviation (SD) of height (a population-level measure of inequality) and (2) median height and the 5th and 95th percentiles of height. Mean-difference plots were used to conduct a graphical analysis of shifts in the distribution within countries over time. Overall, 26 countries experienced a significant increase, 26 experienced no significant change, and 7 experienced a significant decline in mean height between the first and last birth cohorts. Rwanda experienced the greatest loss in height (−1.4 cm, 95% CI: −1.84 cm, −0.96 cm) while Colombia experienced the greatest gain in height (2.6 cm, 95% CI: 2.36 cm, 2.84 cm). Between 1950 and 1989, 24 out of 59 countries experienced a significant change in the SD of women’s height, with increased SD in 7 countries—all of which are located in sub-Saharan Africa. The distribution of women’s height has not stayed constant across successive birth cohorts, and regression models suggest there is no evidence of a significant relationship between mean height and the SD of height (β = 0.015 cm, 95% CI: −0.032 cm, 0.061 cm), while there is evidence for a positive association between median height and the 5th percentile (β = 0.915 cm, 95% CI: 0.820 cm, 1.002 cm) and 95th percentile (β = 0.995 cm, 95% CI: 0.925 cm, 1.066 cm) of height. Benin experienced the largest relative expansion in the distribution of height. In Benin, the ratio of variance between the latest and earliest cohort is estimated as 1.5 (95% CI: 1.4, 1.6), while Lesotho and Uganda experienced the greatest relative contraction of the distribution, with the ratio of variance between the latest and earliest cohort estimated as 0.8 (95% CI: 0.7, 0.9) in both countries. Limitations of the study include the representativeness of DHS surveys over time, age-related height loss, and consistency in the measurement of height between surveys.


The findings of this study indicate that the population-level distribution of women’s height does not stay constant in relation to mean changes. Because using mean height as a summary population measure does not capture broader distributional changes, overreliance on the mean may lead investigators to underestimate disparities in the distribution of environmental and nutritional determinants of health.

Click here to view the full article which appeared in PLOS Medical

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