They may have been the tallest people in the world a century ago. But in the past 100 years, Swedish men and women alike have seen themselves outgrown by several of their European neighbours, according to new findings published in medical journal eLife on Tuesday.
Some 800 researchers from global health science network NCD Risk Factor Collaboration, in association with the World Health Organization, mapped out the height of 18-year-olds in 187 countries and tracked their average growth curve between 1914 and 2014.
They found that Dutch men are today the tallest, towering over others at almost 183 centimetres. The most impressive women meanwhile, measuring on average 170cm, are to be found in Latvia. A hundred years ago the two countries were only 12th respectively 28th tallest in the world.
Swedes of both sexes, however, who measured more than 171cm respectively on average 160cm a century ago, have tumbled from first place to 15th for men and 17th for women.
Of course, they haven't so much tumbled as been outperformed by others. Swedish women have grown to 166cm today and men to around 180cm. Many other nationalities have simply grown faster.
While still shorter than Europeans, Iranian males have enjoyed the biggest height gain in 100 years, from 157cm to 174cm. For women, it's the South Koreans, up from 142 to 162cm.
The smallest men in the world are found in East Timor (160cm) and the smallest women in Guatemala (140cm a year ago, just below 150 today).
Researchers said the reasons were largely down to environmental factors – such as healthcare, nutrition and sanination – rather than DNA.
“About a third of the explanation could be genes, but that doesn't explain the change over time. Genes don't change that fast and they don't vary that much across the world. So changes over time and variations across the world are largely environmental. That's at the whole population level versus for any individual whose genes clearly matter a lot,” lead scientist Majid Ezzati, from Imperial College London, told the BBC.
Tall people are said to enjoy longer life expectancy. But last year a study found that they are also at greater risk of developing cancer, so there appears to be some good news for the Swedes after all.
The world's tallest women in 2014 (1914 in brackets)
1. Latvia (28)
2. Netherlands (38)
3. Estonia (16)
4. Czech Republic (69)
5. Serbia (93)
6. Slovakia (26)
7. Denmark (11)
8. Lithuania (41)
9. Belarus (42)
10. Ukraine (43)
17. Sweden (1)
The world's tallest men in 2014 (1914 in brackets)
1. Netherlands (12)
2. Belgium (33)
3. Estonia (4)
4. Latvia (13)
5. Denmark (9)
6. Bosnia and Herzegovina (19)
7. Croatia (22)
8. Serbia (30)
9. Iceland (6)
10. Czech Republic (24)
15. Sweden (1)