Estonian guys tower among the tall in Europe

Nils Niitra
, reporter
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Illustration: Allikas: The role of nutrittion and genetics as key determinants of the positive height trend; P. Grasgruber, J. Cacek, T. Kalina, M. Sebera; Economics & Human Biology; Elsevier, 2014

Untriumphant at European championships in basketball, Team Estonia was sadly short in eyes of media and coaches. In 2010, the basketball union went as far as to proclaim a find-the-tall campaign. So are male Estonians shorties? 

The answer might be provided by an article in the scientific journal Economics and Human Biology, looking into links between welfare in nations and height of citizens. The authors have processed data collected by anthropologists in various countries this century, related to median height of young men.

Turns out, Europe’s tallest guys hail from the territories of former Yugoslavia known by excellent basketballers. Thus, the average is best in Herzegovina at 185.2 centimetres.

The Dutch come second in Europe with (183.8 cm), trailed again by a Balkan land Montenegro (183.2 cm). But who do you think are next in line right after Iceland, Sweden, Lithuania and Czech Republic? It’s Estonians and Serbs at the shared average height 180.9 centimetres. At that, the 2003–2005 measurements featured ethnic Estonians only.

Aivar Kuusmaa, the legendary basketballer and now coach of  TYCO Rapla, says he’d be a short player today with his 1.88 cm. «For a while, we had a problem in our basketball system,» he said. «There was no consistency in searching for the tall, and we were driving on the fumes.»

Meanwhile, Mr Kuusmaa says the picture is better on the volleyball side. «Now, a few tall youths have finally been discovered for our basketball, such as promise to become good players. Not too bad, but it takes a little time to see results.»

While growing up, young basketballers at times tend to complain that their European peers develop faster physically and therefore seem bigger. A youth coach at Tartu Rock, Gert Prants says this is not quite the case.

«Rather, this is our small population – with 1.3 people living here, the numbers of the tall are small as well, smaller than in a nation of ten million,» he said.

The Finnish shortness

So we are clearly among the topmost part among the 45 nations and/or countries listed. Of near neighbours, Latvians are shorter by 8 millimetres, but Finns and Russians by a whopping 2.3 and 3.6 centimetres respectively. The Finnish average is pulled down by those up in the North while in the more prosperous South-West the average is 180.7. Lithuania’s status as a basketball country, however, is readily confirmed by statistics showing the average male height to be 181.3 centimetres.

So Estonians tower way above the European average of 178.3 cm. The men are especially short in Southern Europe – not raising the issue why the nation of an average 177.3 cm just took the European champs title, as in a large country the tall are easier to find, and in basketball it is not height only that matters. The study says it is North and Central Europeans and those in Western Balkan whose height is above the average.

Though the regional differences are obvious till today, the average height has increased all over Europe during the past 150 years. Industrialisation brought about improvement of people’s nutrition and health indicators, resulting in added centimetres. Meanwhile, the study also serves to show that the «growth growth» has its limits: for quite a while, average height has remained the same with several of the tallest nations in Europe including the Dutch. While in various nations the average young men height grows by a centimetre per ten years, in Estonia and Russia it is 0.5 cm.

It’s the genes

The scientific article refutes the claim occasionally surfacing as if the median height would be explicitly linked to a nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) i.e. prosperity. Even so, nutrition keeps playing an important role, more specifically high quality proteins as provided by milk, pork and fish.

But even here it’s the genes that grab the wheel: if a young person is well fed, what is revealed is his in-coded genetic capacity to grow tall. In some nations this is smaller, while in others including Estonians it is bigger.

Lots of the prosperous nations of Europe are shorter by 3 cm than the poor people in Eastern Europe and here the nice meals help not. It’s only thanks to genes that the inhabitants of Western Balkans have emerged tall despite the poverty still prevalent after the severity of wars.

One to research the part played by genes in height is Estonian Genome Centre’s senior research fellow Tõnu Esko. «With our latest study, we discovered that 700 DNA areas may currently be linked to height of people, but probably there will be about 10,000,» he said.

«The height is a feature where hereditary percentage is among the greatest, estimated at 70–90.» Thus, when one eats properly, the environment plays no major role in how tall you grow.

A few weeks ago, Mr Esko co-authored a scientific article dealing with human height. «We took measured heights in nations and compared how well the genetic profiles of these nations predicted the actual heights,» said Mr Esko. «With Estonians, it came very close indeed.»

In Northern Europe, said Mr Esko, natural selection has been stronger to favour the taller and the bigger individuals.

Also, lactose intolerance is a lot rarer in Northern Europe, and it’s the very drinking of milk that helps metabolism of proteins needed for growth.

Mr Esko said people have a definite genetic potential. «If the environment is good and energy-rich food plenteous, people grow tall with the genetic potential allowing,» he said.

«The issue is what will be after 10–20 years – will the average height still be rising or will the environment already be so good as to allow no more increase on account of that.»

Being tall comes with its dark side. For instance, the tall have lately been linked with heightened risk of cancer. «With the tall, the biological mechanisms are more forcefully geared towards cell growth and that may increase risk of cancer,» explained Mr Esko. «By nature, cancer is uncontrolled growth of cells.»

By now, some are saying what about the ladies. Statistical Office data says a woman in Estonia aged 15–44 stands 167 centimetres tall. The author failed to find comparisons with other nations.