Professor Timothy Hatton of the Department of Economics at the University of Essex and the Research School of Economics at Australian National University in Canberra examined and analyzed data for the average height of adult men at the age of 21 from the 1870s to 1980, in 15 European countries.
"Increases in human stature are a key indicator of improvements in the average health of populations. 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," Hatton says in a statement.
"The link between infant mortality and height has already been demonstrated by a number of studies."
Infant mortality rates fell from an average of 178 per 1,000 in 1871-5 to 120 per 1,000 in 1911-15. They then plummeted to 41 in 1,000 in 1951-5 and 14 in 1,000 in 1976-80.
In northern and middle European countries including Britain and Ireland, the Scandinavian countries, Netherlands, Austria, Belgium and Germany there was a "distinct quickening" in the pace of advance in the period spanning the two World Wars and the Great Depression.
"This is striking because the period largely predates the wide implementation of major breakthroughs in modern medicine and national health services," the study said.
"One possible reason, alongside the crucial decline in infant mortality, for the rapid growth of average male height in this period was that there was a strong downward trend in fertility at the time, and smaller family sizes have already been linked with increasing height."
The study is published in the journal Oxford Economic Papers.