European men were nearly 11cm shorter 140 years ago, with the average height of a British man rising from 167.05cm in the 1870s to 177.37cm in the 1970s, a study has shown.

The average height of men in Europe rose significantly between the mid-nineteenth century and the 1980s, with growth spurts "quickening" during the two World Wars and the Great Depression.

A study published in the journal Oxford Economic Papers used old data showing the heights of military conscripts and recruits, as well as more recent readings taken from cross-sectional surveys.

Timothy J Hatton, Professor of Economics at the University of Essex and the Research School of Economics at the Australian National University in Canberra, looked at height information from 15 European countries.

He said lower infant mortality rates were a key factor in the growth of men in Europe. Infant mortality rates fell from 178 per 1,000 in 1871-5 to 120 per 1,000 in 1911-5, and just 14 per 1,000 in 1976-80.

"Increases in human stature are a key indicator of improvements in the average health of populations," he said.

"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. The link between infant mortality and height has already been demonstrated by a number of studies."

Findings showed that men in northern and middle European countries, including Britain, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, grew particularly quickly during the Great Depression, World War I and World War II.

Lower fertility during war

Hatton said this finding was surprising as these eras predate most major breakthroughs in modern medicine and the establishment of national health services.

He suggested that this may be accounted for by the strong downward trend of fertility at the time - smaller families have previously been linked with height increases.

Other factors leading to increased male height include increased income, more sanitary housing and living conditions, better education about health and improved social and health services, Hatton added.

However John Middleton, from the Faculty of Public Health, told the BBC that the study provides more questions than it does answers.

"Does how tall we are really tell us how healthy we are? This interesting research suggests that it's certainly a factor," he said.

"While our average height is a useful barometer to bear in mind, what we really need is to tackle the many reasons for poor health that we can address.

"Employment is one of the best ways to do that, which is why we need to focus on more than just diet and exercise when it comes to improving the nation's health."