PROBLEM: As gravity pulls down on us, as the cartilage between our joints wears down, and as our spines are weakened by osteoporosis, we shrink. The process, as with most processes associated with aging, is degenerative. But just as people age differently, people shrink differently -- and how many inches we lose may tell us something about how we've lived our lives.
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METHODOLOGY: Economists at USC, Harvard, and Peking University analyzed data from 17,708 Chinese adults over the age of 45. They estimated the former, full height of older participants who had already started to shrink by looking at the length of their arms and legs (limbs don't shrink), and then extrapolating from younger participants with similar limb length. They then compared participants' loss in height to their performance on an array of tests and health evaluations, along with their responses to survey questions.
RESULTS: With age, men tended to shrink an average of 3.3 centimeters, or 1.3 inches. Women lost 3.8 centimeters, or an inch and a half. The researchers discovered a number of health and lifestyle indicators of height loss. City people shrank less than country folk. Illiterate men and women lost .9 and .6 cm more, respectively, than men and women who completed primary school; completing high school appeared to prevent an extra centimeter from being lost.