Intended for healthcare professionals


Can genetic evidence help us understand why height and weight relate to social position?

BMJ 2016; 352 doi: (Published 08 March 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;352:i1224
  1. George Davey Smith, professor of clinical epidemiology,
  2. Neil M Davies, research associate
  1. MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit, School of Social and Community Medicine, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK
  1. Correspondence to: G Davey Smith kz.davey-smith{at}

Open data projects such as UK Biobank offer great opportunities, but data analysis and interpretation are challenging

Growth in childhood has long been related to educational success; Townsend Porter’s 1893 study of 33 500 schoolchildren in St Louis showed that taller (and heavier) pupils got better grades.1 In high income countries today, greater height and lower indices of adiposity associate with educational success and advantageous socioeconomic position. How this social patterning of anthropometry arises remains a subject of debate. Porter’s 125 year old findings suggest that under-nutrition and illness related suboptimal growth cause low educational attainment. More recent findings that, in rich countries, thinner rather than fatter people now accumulate more education indicates that a more nuanced explanation is needed.

In a linked paper (doi:10.1136/bmj.i582), Tyrrell and colleagues use data from more than 100 000 participants in the UK Biobank study to show that taller and thinner participants have better socioeconomic outcomes ranging through education, occupational status, family income, and the deprivation levels of where people live.2 Most of the positive connotations of height are stronger in men than women, whereas the reverse is the case for the negative implications of obesity. These patterns have been seen many times before but are complemented …

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