Professor Barry Bogin claims youngsters need love, hope and happiness to develop properly – and factors like diet, exercise and genetics are not the whole story.
He says that being unloved and lacking hope for the future causes “toxic emotional stress” that can “block hormones needed for growth”.
The American biological anthropologist, who is based at Loughborough University, Leics, said: “The human species requires strong social and emotional attachments, that is love, between people of all ages.”
He said the average man in strife-torn Guatemala was just over 5ft 3in, while in the Netherlands, which has some of the best social care in the world, it was around 6ft.
Professor Bogin, who has studied human growth for nearly five decades, has analysed historical records of height over the last 200 years. He said an economic crisis knocked around 1.1in off those born in the US in 1873.
Since the 1890s, Britons and Americans have been growing taller, with 20th century turmoil such as the 1930s Great Depression having less impact because governments provided support.
Professor Bogin added: “If you don’t have security, healthcare, education and you worry about the future, you can’t have hope and that is what leads to chronic toxic stress.”