Proceedings of the Nutrition Society

Symposium on ‘Growing up with good nutrition: a focus on the first two decades’

Secular trends in growth

T. J. Colea1 c1

a1 Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, Institute of Child Health, 30 Guilford Street, London WC1N 1EH, UK


Since the 19th century there have been clearly documented secular trends to increasing adult height in most European countries, with current rates of 10–30 mm / decade. Over the same period menarcheal age has also fallen steeply, but has now stabilized at approximately 13 years and may be rising again. Height trends tend to be greater in childhood than in adulthood due to the associated advance in maturation, but no trends are apparent before the age of 2 years. In particular, birth-weight trends are small and different in shape from height trends. The adult height trend matches that at age 2 years, so that the increment in adult height has already been achieved by age 2 years. To try to identify factors relating to the secular trend, increased height gain in late infancy is hypothesized to be equivalent to a reduction in stunting, and stunting is thought to be caused by impaired growth in the long bones of the leg in later infancy. Leg growth may be regulated by the expression of growth-hormone receptors on the growth plates, which it is hypothesized are susceptible to the interaction between concurrent nutrition and the nominal growth rate set during pregnancy. The timing of menarche is also likely to be determined by some growth factor operating near the time of birth, which also affects later weight, but not height.