The study appears in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences for the week of Dec. 26-30. The authors are Eileen Crimmins and Caleb Finch, professors with joint appointments in the USC School of Gerontology and the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
Records from four European countries show that, on average, survivors of generations with rampant childhood infection - measured by cohort mortality rates at young ages - were shorter and died sooner than counterparts from generations with less childhood disease.
Crimmins and Finch propose that even when they grew into apparently healthy adults, survivors of high-infection generations carried a heavier lifetime burden of inflammation. This in turn accelerated the progress of cardiovascular disease.
The authors also cited contemporary studies showing that respiratory infections, childhood diarrhea, dysentery and other common infectious diseases reduce growth.
When rates of infection dropped due to improved public health practices, adult survivors grew taller and lived longer.
"Our model implies that the reduction in lifelong levels of infections and inflammation reduced and delayed the progression of cardiovascular disease and mortality due to heart disease and allowed for increased height," said Crimmins, the study's lead author.
Other obvious beneficial factors, such as improved nutrition and higher standards of living, did not explain all the mortality data. Crimmins and Finch found that increases in height did not always follow improvements in income and nutrition. In addition, height decreased during some periods of improving income in early industrial cities.