Children in deprived parts of England 'shorter than wealthy youngsters'

Researchers say parts of east London have hotspots of short stature among schoolchildren

Young children living in deprived areas in England are more likely to be short than their counterparts in wealthier parts of the country, a study has found.

Researchers collected and studied data from seven million boys and girls aged 4 and 5 between 2006 and 2019 as part of the National Child Measurement Programme.

According to the findings, about 2 per cent of the children measured were short for their age, and that short height was linked to living in poorer areas.

Primary schoolchildren living in poor areas are nearly twice as likely to be short as youngsters in richer places, the findings suggest.

Joanna Orr, a postdoctoral research assistant at Queen Mary University of London, and first author of the study, called the contrast “striking”.

“Whilst the average prevalence of short stature across England was in line with what we’d expect, the regional differences we see are striking, and there’s a clear north-south divide," she said.

“Our findings show that where a child is born and the environment in which they grow up has an impact on their height at a young age and suggest further investigation is needed into why children from poorer areas of England are shorter.”

Regional hot spots were found in the most deprived areas of east and north London as well as the north of England and the Midlands.

A prevalence of short stature in children was also observed in the east London areas of Tower Hamlets, Newham and Hackney as well as Brent in the north-west of the UK capital.

The highest rate of short stature in young children was observed in Blackburn and Darwen in the north-west of England.

It was more than four times higher than the lowest prevalence recorded in Richmond-upon-Thames, a leafy suburb in west London.

The researchers said their findings translate into an additional 2,950 children with short stature out of 100,000 children starting school.

Short height for a child's age can be a sign of underlying health conditions or adverse socio-economic circumstances.

The study suggests that large numbers of young children, particularly those in the most deprived areas of England, could be failing to reach their full growth potential.

Andrew Prendergast, professor of paediatric infection and immunology at Queen Mary, said short stature could also be an indicator of other vulnerabilities in the younger generation.

“Currently most UK public health programmes focus on body mass index as the main indicator of health," he said.

"So even though the heights of schoolchildren in England are being measured as part of this national programme, children with short stature are not currently systematically being highlighted to their families or GPs for action.

“Height could be a marker for other vulnerabilities, such as underlying health conditions or poor nutrition, so nationwide screening programmes could provide an opportunity to identify children who are short for their age and intervene early.”

The study was funded by Barts Charity and carried out in collaboration with Public Health England and St George's, University of London.

The findings are published in PLOS Medicine.

Updated: September 29th 2021, 1:39 PM