Timothy J. Hatton, who teaches economics at the University of Essex and at the Research School of Economics at Australian National University in Canberra, examined height data for males around age 21 from 15 European countries using a series of population surveys and military records.
He found that as infant mortality rates decreased, the height of the average male increased.
Infant mortality rates fell from an average of 178 per 1,000 in 1871-75 to 14 for the 1976-80 period.
"The evidence suggests that the improving disease environment, as reflected in the fall in infant mortality, is the single most important factor driving the increase in height," Hatton said in a press release.
Other factors that account for increases in height include higher income per capita; more sanitary housing and living conditions; better general education about health and nutrition; and better social and health services.
Increases in height are a good indicator of improvements in the average health of populations, which is why Hatton was surprised to find that the pace of increases in height actually picked up in the period of the two world wars and the Great depression — that is, before many key medical breakthroughs and the advent of national health services.
Hutton's study, published online Monday in the journal Oxford Economic Papers, found a "distinct quickening" in the pace at which height of the average male in northern and central Europe increased during this time. A decrease in infant mortality definitely played a part in this but smaller family size could also have had a role, the study said, since this factor has been linked to increases in height.
The study did not include women as the historical data on women's height is limited.