Urban children are now slightly shorter than their rural peers, according to a study published in the journal Nature. The shift in growth patterns is a dramatic reversal from 30 years ago when children were taller in the cities. The research team drew on data from 71 million people involved in 2,325 population studies undertaken in more than 200 countries from 1990 to 2020. While children’s heights increased in both urban and rural areas, city children grew less in the last three decades. Height matters because good early life growth is linked to improved health across a person’s lifespan. The reasons for the shift remain unclear, however, it could signify that health resources between the two populations are closer.
Problems accessing quality health care, education, safety and nutrition can significantly affect early childhood growth. Though these factors tend to be of better quality in urban areas, the shift could indicate that health resources between rural and urban areas are now more balanced. It is, however, difficult to discern the causes of the shift, whether they are socioeconomic or populations shifting or both, according to University of Essex epidemiologist Honor Bixby, a co-author of the study. Moreover, the migration of people from rural to urban environments, the report notes, would only play a minor role in the shift.
Researchers agreed that growth convergence had to be viewed as a positive trend due to those who had previously been deprived of health resources now being able to access them. Discrepancies persist, however, particularly in sub-Saharan African, South Asian, and Middle Eastern countries, where boys living in rural areas ceased to grow. While the shift appears to demonstrate a narrowing of inequality between city and rural environments, it is important to remain aware that there are still vulnerable populations that can be targeted for policy and program development. Finally, the report warns of growing inequalities within cities that can disproportionately affect the most deprived populations.