How long did people live 100 years ago?

by Kathy | Disclosure

How long did people live 100 years ago?

“Of course people didn’t live long … the average life expectancy was 40 years”. How often have you heard this quote or something very similar? If you are a watcher of tv documentaries or attended public school anytime in the last 70 years or so you’ve probably heard this several hundred times. Just last night I heard it again while watching Frontier House, the PBS reality show from about 10 years back. The belief that most everyone in the past dropped dead around 40 is common. People with ancestors that lived to be old generally think the members of their family were just exceptionally long lived.

The story goes something like this: Prior to the introduction of antibiotics and vaccines most people succumbed to an infectious disease prior to or around middle age. Children died at a very high rate. Work was hard and cruel. Food was salty, fatty, monotonous, somewhat scarce and just plain bad for you. Life was short and miserable … Survival into old age was a rare miracle.

This is a myth. We’ve been mislead into believing this by a simple trick of statistics. In actuality life expectancy for a modern adult is pretty much the same now as it was back then. You’d expect it would be much better now with modern medicine but the statistics do not bear that out. What was it Mark Twain said?

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Let’s review the evidence then we can know more clearly just how long average people with decent kind of life lived prior to the advent of modern diets and modern medicines.

The Basic Misunderstanding Explained

The problem is simple really. When the media mention at what age people used to die they sometimes but not always mention that “life expectancy” statistics is the source of their information. Sounds reasonable enough … if life expectancy is 40 then people die on average at 40. Not true though. We think “Life Expectancy” is a record of the actual age at death but it isn’t. It is calculated using a number of actuarial formulas … it is not a simple average of actual age at time of death. I had hoped to shed a little light on the calculation, but frankly only a mathematician could read the formulas :-). So there is some complexity there. Even if they were a simple average of actual age at time of death these averages would include all deaths from infants just born thru old age just as the “Life Expectancy” calculations do. The high number of deaths amongst infants and small children prior to modern sanitation and antibiotics will skew the numbers so the average is quite low. So if say 10% of babies and toddlers die before the age of 5 that will dramatically shift the average life expectancy downward.

Benjamin Radford at Live Science in this post about how lifespans have been constant for 2000 years explains the misunderstanding better than I can when he states:

Again, the high infant mortality rate skews the “life expectancy” dramatically downward. If a couple has two children and one of them dies in childbirth while the other lives to be 90, stating that on average the couple’s children lived to be 45 is statistically accurate but meaningless. Claiming a low average age of death due to high infant mortality is not the same as claiming that the average person in that population will die at that age.

I’ve put together the graph below to help illustrate. Now, I’m not a researcher nor a statistician but I spent a few hours searching for data that would help us clarify the problem. First I looked for historical stats on age at time of death. All I could find was “life expectancy” tables for various points in history so the numbers in the graph for 1900 are estimates based on statements from various books and articles. I was able to find good current year age at death records so that really helps. I also included a really unscientific survey of age at death taken from my local papers obituary. This includes age at death for 100 people in 2012/2013. If anyone knows where I can find good stats to replace my 1900 estimates please let me know.      See update note

Historically the number of deaths would be a kind of reverse bell curve with most deaths occurring in the very young and the very old. This chart illustrates the difference:

Now you may ask why the death statistics for infants and toddlers was so high … Good question! For starters, most statistics available for the era were taken in big cities at the turn of the century, places notoriously difficult to live in. The health statistics for adults were also not very good in these places, so children would have been very vulnerable. They were generally taken at large hospitals, places the healthy avoided. The rural areas where things were more traditional, the pace slower, the diet much better and the living more secure, well they didn’t keep records as closely and so tended to not be included in the numbers. There are a few interesting historical sources like this one published in the Journal Of The Royal Society Of Medicine on Victorian England showing that many average english of the victorian era lived long lives and enjoyed better health than modern people do. They were working with medical records taken from 1850-1900 that showed better health overall for this population than in the current British population. source article

Early deaths from accidents and infections roughly equals early deaths from modern diseases

Modern medicine has done a fabulous job of helping people in acute crisis. Like infants born too early, people with acute life-threatening infections, and those in terrible accidents. Access to modern medicine greatly reduces deaths from these causes. What it hasn’t done a good job of however is eliminating heart disease, cancer, diabetes and autoimmune illness, the biggest killers of the modern era. In fact these diseases were extremely rare before modern times, so rare as to be statistically insignificant. Generally the deaths from these modern diseases balance with the deaths from accident and infectious diseases for the most part. The age at death is higher but still far short of a full lifespan.

What about the argument that people just didn’t live long enough back then to develop these degenerative conditions? Well, historically a large percentage of the population did in fact live to a ripe old age without developing any of these conditions. So this argument just doesn’t hold water.

Life Expectancy is lowest for those who are poorer

Always has been … obviously the main reason why people don’t want to be poor! There were populations of people in the past with extremely short lifespans. Generally these folks had little access to fresh clean food and water and were made to work very long hours in very unhealthy conditions. They had very limited diets and thus were susceptible to tuberculosis (TB), pneumonia, and diphtheria three of the major causes of death at the time. Those on extremely limited diets developed frank deficiency diseases like pellagra and beriberi in large numbers. They were very susceptible to injury on the job, and if injured received little or no assistance. This included about everyone that worked in large cities, had factory jobs, were miners or railroad workers. It would also include some rural people that had very exploitive working conditions, renting the land they worked from a landlord. People like sharecroppers for instance. All these people were the poorest of the poor and like the poor in all times and places died an earlier death on average. My Mother used to say of women that died young “She lived a hard life” by way of explaining their early death.

In modern times we talk about these poverty conditions as if everyone in the past suffered this kind of restriction. Not the case at all! The majority of people lived in settled rural communities with a tradition of local trade. While they may not have had a lot of cash or huge amounts of property they were still basically independent as a community. These small towns and villages were made up of yeoman farm families that produced food and traded largely amongst themselves.

The majority of the population of North America lived in such rural communities. This is what made the Americas attractive to immigrants. Farm living was widely regarded as the most wholesome kind of living and many made great efforts to attain land they could own outright rather than rent so they could enjoy the benefits of good food, sunshine and a guaranteed way to make a living.

Around the time of the construction of the railroads the independence of these communities began to be eaten away around the edges. These communities began to see a reduction in health as well. Many children from these farms had to go to cities to earn cash money to pay new or increased taxes for the family farm, or for the cash needs of the farm now that the community cohesion was deteriorating. People started to have to pay cash for many healthy food items rather than barter as in times past. Some foods were now brought in from a distance. Food adulteration became widespread, bringing the FDA into existence. This is the beginning of the loss of health Dr. Weston A Price saw in his practice around the turn of the century.

Upsurge in Degenerative Conditions Coincides with the Introduction of Processed Foods

Dr. Price was conducting his research at this time and was able to document the effects of these newfangled foods on populations that had previously ate only their own cultures diet. He was able to show that degenerative diseases became far more common once the processed foods were eaten particularly by the second generation.

Now we can enjoy the benefits of medical care for acute conditions AND the benefits of eating a healthy wholesome diet. We can live out our full lifespans in good health. We needn’t suffer from early death from infectious disease or degenerative modern conditions. All we need to do is eat traditionally.

Update 4/5/13: I’ve added another series to the chart with actual numbers from 1924. Haven’t found the 1900 actuals but have made some adjustments to my estimate based on the 1924 numbers. I will include the actuals when I find them.
Sources: 1924 Actual Death Rate, Mortality Stats Table E.

Subscribe to Granny's Vital Vittles
and get Granny's Kickstarter Meal Plan, for free!

  • Includes breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks
  • Matching shopping list complete with prices
  • Choose your own price range and quality of ingredients based on your own budget.

Find out EXACTLY how much a week of real food costs.

Talk With Us!

Granny LOVES a great discussion! A thoughtful, in-depth look from all angles benefits us all. If you disagree let us know! But please remember you're in Granny's house and be respectful of that. If you wouldn't say it in your Grandma's hearing please don't say it here! No name-calling or foul language. Those comments that don't respect Granny's home will be deleted.

ThisWomanWrites March 18, 2013 at 11:00 am

Kathy — interesting article, well researched, and I love the Mark Twain quote. What a guy.

I found this via the Village Green network and followed your link.

Kathy March 18, 2013 at 12:39 pm

Thank you :-) Mark Twain is one my all-time favorites … tells it like it is!

Amy March 18, 2013 at 2:37 pm

A few years ago I read a fascinating book about the history of childbirth which provided some explanation of high infant mortality around 1900 which coincided with birth becoming a medical procedure in hospitals. This was especially true among the poor who could not afford to have doctors come to their homes. And the sanitary conditions and interference from doctors led to more deaths. Sorry that I cannot provide the title or author.

Kathy March 18, 2013 at 4:32 pm

I remember reading that too … in the case of childbirth the doctors were not washing their hands between deliveries and were transferring infection from mother to mother, child to child. Took a long time to convince them the hand washing was necessary too. These are the kinds of hospitals statistics were taken from. My great-grandma born in the 1880’s used to say about going to the hospital when she was very old “They’re tryin’ to kill me there!” … my Mom always thought it was a hold over from the poor quality hospitals from when she was young. Poor folk avoided the hospital if at all possible during those times.

Emily Keffler March 23, 2013 at 8:00 pm

I don’t know how valid or accurate this is, but read somewhere that another reason for so many infant deaths and poor birth outcomes around the turn of the century is that the convention was to shun sunlight by covering up. Paleness was a sign of the delicate elite. This, lack of sunlight from living in smoggy dim cities, and combined with a poorer nontraditional diet led to rickets and pelvic deformities that restricted the birthing canal making birth very difficult and impossible for some. I’ve also heard this in conjunction with doctor’s rabid restrictions on mother’s diets and weight gain in pregnancy during my grandmother’s generation. I think she was allowed 15 lbs by her doctor or he would drop her as a patient (in the 50’s). A deprived mother makes smaller babies which would fit through a compromised birthing canal much easier. Like I said, not sure about the provenance of this or its accuracy.

Kathy March 24, 2013 at 10:35 am

Good point Emily … I bet the practice of corsetry had something to do with it as well.

Debbie McCormick March 19, 2013 at 11:36 am

Very informative. I love digging into topics like this.

Elaine Michaels March 19, 2013 at 2:44 pm

I loved your article! I have always wondered about this because it just never made sense that people always died younger. I think of some of my own relatives – especially my g-ma who died at age 83 in 1960. She was very robust and actually didn’t die of any particular thing – kind of a broken heart….She could outdo most 30 year old’s today and that’s no joke!

Chris at Hye Thyme Cafe March 19, 2013 at 3:05 pm

One of my grandmothers actually lived to the day after he 108th b-day. That’s not all that uncommon, but it’s pretty cool based on the particular years she lived. She was born in the 1800s, lived all the way through the 1900s into the 2000s, so she not only lived in three difference centuries but two different millenia. Imagine all the new things she saw over the course of her life! [#TALU]

melissa March 23, 2013 at 4:29 pm

That is so neat!

Anne Kimball March 19, 2013 at 6:38 pm

Very informative! Thanks for sharing this great post with TALU!

Jennifer Chow March 19, 2013 at 6:39 pm

So interesting! I’ve never thought about it, but it makes sense that the life expectancy gets highly skewed by infant mortality. Thanks for sharing! And I found you from TALU.

Gudrun B March 20, 2013 at 12:16 am

excellent!!!! well done!
part of the child mortality is also farm accidents – which we see among our Amish community; though i doubt it really plays a high role in the end number; a friend’s relative had a brother die at the age of 9 after he was pinned between 2 wagons; today he would have had surgery and might have survived, 50 some years ago there was surgery, but they opted not to do any thing and he died with in an hour. Those accidents were not too infrequent;
and hospitals to this day have a higher number of infant mortality compared to home births
we are really not so modern and sophisticated :)

Kathy March 21, 2013 at 9:51 am

I would think such farm accidents would be balanced out now by child mortality from auto accidents … life is never without some risk, even for little kids.

Laurel March 20, 2013 at 9:10 am

I can attest to the high rate of infant mortality in the big cities. I was digging through old church records from 1880 – 1910 in Chicago looking for traces of my ancestors. It was shocking and so very sad to see so many infant burials. They outnumbered the deaths of the elderly. It seems that if you lived past 5 you would be ok. But can you imagine the horror of losing a 3 month old, a one year old, a 3 year old, etc…. My grandmother had 3 siblings that died in infancy including her twin, and 4 that lived to adulthood. Whereupon they drank themselves into an early grave, but that’s another story!

Kathy March 21, 2013 at 9:54 am

Some of the stories of child mortality from big cities like Chicago during the time from the civil war thru to WWI are just heart breaking. So much poverty.

FoodProoFool March 21, 2013 at 9:37 am

I had been trying to research this topic several months ago, praying I would come across something like this.. This is awesome! Thanks for all the work you put in to provide people with this information.

Cory March 21, 2013 at 2:39 pm

I’ve always thought this about those life expectancy stats. Could you post the link to the formulas so that maybe the more mathematically-minded among us (I’m not a mathematician, but I do know one!) could take a peek?

I recently did some research on my ancestry – tracing relatives from a line that came to Tennessee by way of Georgia c. 1800. Far as I can tell, with the exception of a young woman who died in her early 20’s for no knowable reason, and my two great-grandfathers, one who died in a car accident, and the other of cancer, in the 1920’s, everyone else lived well into their 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. They would have been the farmers that you speak of, living in small communities, eking out their living from the land. Definitely lots of infant mortality though – my great-grandmother lost her first three babies:(

Kathy March 21, 2013 at 6:10 pm

When I went looking for the formulas I just did a Google search to find them. I saw a number of actuarial type posts showing a method for the calculation. I suspect there are a number of different formulas with slight nuances between them. When people talk about it for the layperson they talk in terms of simple averages, but that is isn’t quite correct. It just simplifies matters to make it easier to talk about. If you’re interested just Google it and let us know what you think of what you find.

Marios Dimopoulos March 21, 2013 at 6:15 pm

I will study this article carefully. I would like to share this information. I have examined the human life expectancy from ancient times. They say that ancient Greeks or Romans lived an average 30-35 years old. This is not true. Herodotus, the father of history, wrote that the average lifespan of ancient Greeks were 70 years. I have read the biographies of many ancient writers who lived 80 or 90 years. And an ancient Greek writer had written a book with the title “The people who live long”. In this book he examines tribes and people who lived to be 100 or 120 years old.

Marios Dimopoulos
Clinical Nutritionist,
Fellow of the American Council of Applied Clinical Nutrition


Kathy March 21, 2013 at 8:07 pm

That is fascinating Marios! When I was researching this post I stumbled across a number of articles talking about the lifespan of ancient peoples. For instance, one discussion about Roman soldiers and how after 25 years of service they were rewarded with land. That doesn’t make much sense if they only lived to 35!

Liz March 22, 2013 at 2:40 pm

This is awesome.

It’s so frustrating when people dismiss diet as a cause of modern disease and say that poor health is simply the result of living longer due to modern medicine. So not true! Thank you for laying it all out so clearly.

RobinAKAGoatMom March 22, 2013 at 10:05 pm

My Grandfather was one of 14 children. One died before age 2 in their Father’s arms in a storm/tornado. They built a one room log cabin to survive the winter in. They lives in very rural Kentucky and many remained in the same area and farmed. Amazingly all but one more lived to age 65, over half lived to 8o or better. All worked hard, ate lots of home cured bacon, country ham, biscuits, eggs and red eye gravy. My Grandfather lost a lung to Cancer when I was five and died shortly before I turned 21 from another bought of Cancer. He had 5 children, My Mom and 2 of her brothers died before age 50. I starting living more like the model of my grandparents, so far doing well in my late 50’s.

Desiree March 22, 2013 at 10:50 pm

Fantastic article! I had a hunch very similar to this but never took the time to research it. Very nice work, glad I found your blog through Food Renegade. :) I find it interesting that the places with all the statistics are the cities. The folks who are living off the land and making it by bartering, living a real traditional and pure life… a lot of the time they’re not included in the statistics and might have lived 120 years!

Michael March 23, 2013 at 2:13 pm

No offense, but this article is full of conjecture and opinion, as well as inconsistency. Early on you say “the story goes like this” and list “children dying at a high rate” as one of the common beliefs. Then you state in bold “This is a myth.” Then not two paragraphs later you say “The high number of deaths amongst infants and small children prior to modern sanitation and antibiotics will skew the numbers so the average is quite low”. Which is it? And why should we throw out the infant deaths when discussing modern health and age at time of death, etc. You can’t remove a large section of deaths and then determine a new average. I am by no means saying there is no truth to some of the arguments you are making, but how in the world can we know? As cute as Mark Twain’s comments about statistics are, the fact is that mathematics are what we use to demonstrate truth. Sure, they can be skewed, but you referenced statistics in your analysis as well at least a couple of times. But sadly, most of the time it was just statements with no backing, impossible to prove or disprove. You mention that stats on infant mortality were taken in big cities with hospitals, etc, and didn’t include rural areas, which you assume would be much better because of a “slower pace” and more “traditional” living. Why should we assume that the stats in those areas would be more favorable to your argument? They are unknowable if they weren’t kept, and it’s purely a guess to say they would be better than in the cities. You even mention that modern medicine has done a lot to help things such as “infants born too early”, so why would we assume that rural areas without hospitals would have a lower infant mortality rate? You also say “Well, historically a large percentage of the population did in fact live to a ripe old age without developing any of these conditions. So this argument just doesnโ€™t hold water.” Says who? I saw nothing that proved that. Respectfully, I think this article doesn’t hold water.

Kathy March 23, 2013 at 2:42 pm

Of course it’s filled with conjecture and opinion, after all this is a blog and not a scientific journal :-). The definition of conjecture is “a proposition that is unproven.” Sure, we don’t know about the stats for rural people since they were not kept. And I’m not dissing statistics completely with Mark Twain’s quote. I’m merely proposing the idea that the average person misunderstands what the statistic “life expectancy” means. Most people think it means the age at which the majority died. I have shown that that is in fact not true … that misunderstanding is “The Myth”.

High infant deaths are relevant of course, just not if we are trying to understand if a substantial percentage of the population lived to be old. And if those old folks developed diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes. So yes, to help clarify this issue we can take the infant deaths out of the picture. So it follows if a substantial number of people did in fact live to be old, and the rates of cancer and heart disease remained low, then it was not age itself that leads to the development of these diseases. Rather, it is something about modern life. I am proposing it is the difference in diet. Then I theorize that rural people with their more traditional diets experienced longer lives and less infant mortality.

So in short, I am proposing a line of thought … believe or don’t believe. Absolutely, think it through for yourself and form your own opinion and come up with your own conjecture ๐Ÿ˜‰

Kathy March 23, 2013 at 3:39 pm

Also, I should add that there are stats from the early part of the 20th century to show that cancer, heart disease, diabetes and autoimmune illness were very rarely diagnosed. I’ll make that the subject of another post since it will take some considerable space to talk through.

Heidi March 24, 2013 at 3:26 pm

Another thing when it comes to infant deaths. Many women had far too many children. Pregnancy and breast feeding is hard on the body, and it needs to recovery in between – I think I’ve read at least three years (practised by indigenous people). My great great grandmother here in Norway gave birth to 14 children, and lost 9 of them.

Thank’s for a great article! When talking about traditional food and its benefits, people refer to this all the time. I try to say that the statistics lie, but they really don’t listen up.

Heidi, Norway

Eva March 23, 2013 at 6:44 pm

Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!!!
I always knew there was something fishy about that statistic but I never bothered looking any further into it.
Nice job – thoroughly enjoyable read.
Now I can point to your blog and say “SEE! I told you that was suspicious”

Chris March 23, 2013 at 9:10 pm

The biggest abusers of the myth of life expectancy are those that use it to purport that the sole reason for the increase in life expectancy is modern scientific medicine, and completely discount all improvements in the standard of living. Famine is a thing of the past in modern countries as food can arrive from thousands of kilometers away in a few days. Not many people die of exposure these days due to improve shelters, and now people can drink water that is not contaminated with filth.

Most busters of the myth of life expectancy say that if you made it past age 5 and you were not the victim of an accident or homicide, you had the same chances of living to a ripe old age as we do today. The data can be found from many sources, like the Maya stelae which recorded the age of death of their rulers, and a few made it past 65. Church records of age of marriage was also a good source as in areas with a good standard of living, people were waiting until age 25 or so to get married, which would make no sense at all if they were to drop dead at age 40, leaving children under age 15 to fend for themselves.

There are also the skulls of Native Americans who lived more than 10,000 years ago, the skulls show healthy teeth with almost no cavities, wisdom teeth that erupted properly, and no skeletal deformities which indicates an excellent diet and no famine, which is the number one reason for a long life.

Lea H @ Nourishing Treasures March 24, 2013 at 6:59 pm

Thank you for your submission on Nourishing Treasures’ Make Your Own! Monday link-up.

Check back tomorrow when the new link-up is running to see if you were one of the top 3 featured posts! :)

Suburban Farm Girl March 25, 2013 at 12:07 am

Thank you for sharing! My husband often asks me questions about the health of people before the modern era, and now I have some information to back up what I am saying. Thank you!


CJ March 25, 2013 at 6:52 am

I would agree. My great-grandmother recorded her parents and siblings information including age at death. All but 1 of the large family lived into their 80s & 90s.

Lori @ Our Heritage of Health March 28, 2013 at 7:14 pm

I love this post, Kathy! It always drives me crazy when I hear people talk about how people must have been unhealthy 100 plus years ago because their life spans were so much lower than ours today. People who make broad statements like that hardly ever consider all of the different factors involved like living on rural farms vs. city slums, being wealthy or poor, etc. AND they overlook the fact that people living 100 years ago weren’t burdened with chronic diseases to nearly the same extent that people are today.

Thanks for sharing with Old-Fashioned Friday! :)

kate March 29, 2013 at 11:59 am

I’ve had this debate with my dad a ton. After reading up on modern diseases and also getting into, lol as well as being a history person, I knew that a lot of people from records actually seemed to live pretty long lives. I actually used the same exact arguments you did in this article which makes me feel smart lol thanks for that.
Of course all of mine lived in the country and regularly lived into their 80’s and 90’s and even a few into the 100’s. My own grandmother is almost 91 now and still as feisty as ever. She was from a sharecropping fam. btw and I once asked her what it was like growing up in the depression to a sharecropping fam. She said they were poor but she didn’t know it because they grew, raised, and hunted all of their food and were never hungry. She looked incredibly healthy and robust in old pictures of her with high cheekbones and perfect teeth. Honestly, she’s still a looker even at 91. Old men flirt with her all the time and she thinks they’re young’uns because they’re in their 70’s or 80’s lol.

Elaine March 30, 2013 at 1:50 am

Good for your g-ma! The young-uns know a good thing when they see it! Again, proof you don’t have to have $ to be rich….

jason April 6, 2015 at 12:54 pm

this is very ture you don’t need money to be rich

carrie April 14, 2013 at 10:22 am

This doesn’t surprise me, since Moses said at Psalms 90:10 that man’s years are seventy or eighty.

Simple Works April 14, 2013 at 1:06 pm

I found this out a few years ago and when I did I was a bit surprised. Long life for humans basically came about when we stood upright, our lungs had the chance to breathe more fully and efficiently. Better breath meant lower stress and more oxygen to the brain and better energy. Our breath is our life!

Heather April 14, 2013 at 8:03 pm

This was incredibly insightful! I never made the connection between average age of death and life expectancy. I often hear from others about how the reason people didn’t have the health issues of today is because they didn’t live as long. Thanks for the explanation!

Jenny April 15, 2013 at 1:38 pm

Hi Kathy. I think it’s great you are trying to figure all this out. However, there are a few serious misunderstandings that are causing some errors. What you are looking for is called “age adjusted mortality rate”. This is common rate calculated in demography and available at both through both the CDC and Census data. An age adjusted mortality rate looks at the mortality for that age strata i.e. neonatal, infant, child, adolescent, adult. etc. That way you can compare the death rate of infants in 1900 to 1990. You are right that the crude death rate tells you very little. The age adjusted tells you quite a bit. There are some very key improvements in health that are glossed over : 1) The maternal mortality rate has dropped by 99% since 1900. As you can imagine, this lead to the death of huge number of young women prior to 1900 and dramatically drove down the age of women. 2)Death from infection was huge. Really huge. It killed people at all ages all the time.

What you are discussing is called the “epidemiologic transition” where diseases of infection drop off and “lifestyle” diseases become the major drivers of mortality. There are many, many of us who spend our lives on this topic. I have graduate degrees in statistics and public health. Believe me, I understand the difference between a simple average (the example of the couple with the two kids) and an age adjusted rate. The improvements in life expectancy are real.

Kathy April 15, 2013 at 8:37 pm

Thanks for the info from an expert Jenny! I’m glad you enjoyed the post … I’ll look into the age adjusted mortality rate and see what I can learn from that. The main thrust of my argument is that the layperson, media included, don’t understand what “life expectancy” means in statistical terms and so the stats are misused and incorrect conclusions drawn from it. I know that statisticians know what it means :-). Normally you don’t hear the age adjusted rates bandied about in casual conversation it’s usually a more general average … anything else would be complex to talk about and wouldn’t make a good sound bite.

Charles Nankin February 4, 2015 at 9:54 pm

umm well then plse show us how lifestyle diseases are the same as 140 years ago, when other factors are controlled for.

and it would be great if you can talk to the rest of your fellow public health and statistics graduates because quite frankly you have an exploding health crisis which you are exporting to the rest of the world.

your denial is EXACTLY what Twain was talking about, oh wise one.

Kathy February 6, 2015 at 5:34 pm

Umm, well, I’d love to answer but am not sure how to these points address the post. I am most decidedly not a statistician, merely an interested layperson, able to reason. I am not stating that lifestyle diseases are the same now as 140 years ago, in fact I’m making the opposite point. And yes, I agree we have an exploding health crisis … no denial here. So I’m not sure how your points contradict this post at all … in fact I’d say you agree with me if it weren’t for the tone of this comment :-)

Susan April 15, 2013 at 7:21 pm

I enjoyed your article and I have to shake my head at “science” and statistics when it comes to human history. None of us were there, we can’t say with accuracy how long people lived. Maybe I’m just a sceptic, but there are so many factors that are not considered in written history.
For example, a man I knew in college was from…(I want to say Mali) West Africa and he said that they didn’t really keep track of when babies were born in his small rural community. As far as the elders could say, his grandmother was well over 110 years old. They figured that out by remembering when they were growing up 100 years ago, she was much older than them. She was still walking over a mile every morning to collect her water in 2011. :0)

Amy April 16, 2013 at 10:00 pm

This is an interesting premise but I don’t think it necessarily plays out that well. Now when we talk about life expectancy, we are often looking at stats that calculate life expectancy after age 5. In my family, looking back several generations there is a mix of people living into their 80s and 90s and people dying of things which are now preventable or treatable. I can think of several women who died in or after childbirth, a relative who died of pernicious anemia, 2 young children who died during the flu epidemic in 1918, another relative who died in an industrial accident and another who died as a result of Type I diabetes. I’ve also lived in very remote third world locations and I don’t know a single family who hadn’t lost a child due to illness or an accident- regardless of socioeconomic status, and there were a mere handful of people older than 60 years of age. Here’s how I see it: we have choices about how we take care of ourselves. If you eat a reasonable diet, get some exercise and manage stress, and you have access to clean water, antibiotics when absolutely necessary and treatment for traumatic injury, you have a reasonable chance of living a long life.

Patricia May 18, 2013 at 10:28 am

I’m a professional genealogist and I think people are genuinely shocked to see 3,4,5 even 6x great grandparents *mostly* lived into their 70’s and 80’s. Is it scientific for me to say that? No, but it’s fact based on real records I handle every single day. Great article!

Marcy McManaway May 23, 2013 at 5:04 pm

Great article and have heard that comment a few times… I also had grandparents that lived well into their eighties and one into her nineties.

Mae July 10, 2013 at 5:20 pm

Here is something to think about: If our modern world didn’t have the medical advances that are used to sustain lives beyond when they would naturally end, what would the life expectancy currently be???

If we only had the treatments available that were available 100 years ago, would the current widespread diseases such as cancer, Alzheimers, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and even infant deaths lower the modern life expectancy to considerably lower than 100 years ago?

I tend to think so. While I think the modern life-saving medical treatments can be wonderful, we need to realize that we are so much LESS healthy than our ancestors!

REX BOVEE July 31, 2013 at 4:53 pm

What frustrates me about this article is no mention of the Civil War or the early deaths among pioneer families. Factor that out and I suspect the average death would be higher, but walk through old western cemeteries … I used to live in Winnemucca and we on the way to Reno drove across the 40-mile desert where 40,000 pioneers died … I always joked that 35,000 of them were women and kids looking for a restroom!

Donika September 22, 2013 at 6:30 pm

My grandmother was born in 1888, survived Swine Flu and Spanish Flu, gave birth to 8 live children, and in her later years smoked 4 packs of cigarettes a day…and lived until 1968!

Christal November 8, 2013 at 12:01 pm

This is an amazing article of information! I have often pondered why we have so much more diseases than years ago. And I have realized that it has to do with our food, and what we are eating. Thank you for posting this!

Terry Fitzgerald November 30, 2013 at 9:55 am

I can’t seem to remember the verse, but the Bible…Old Testament…says that the age of man then was 70 years.

Priscilla Rowan April 1, 2014 at 11:40 am

Wonderful article!…..but may I be of some constructive criticism? All I know is that the only promise we have for long life is found in Ephesians 6:1-3″Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. Honour thy father and mother; (which is the first commandment with promise;) That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.” …nothing about a diet promising long life. BUT I do agree that God designed our physical bodies to eat a certain way, but we do not live by bread alone “…..Man shall not live by bread alone…but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. ” (Matt 4:4). I believe the QUAULITY of life is dependant on our obedience to God; everything we do for God should be to glorify Him…”Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” 1 Cor 10:31 What wonderful promises we have!!

And I love your blog…come here often! :)

HabibiL'amour May 22, 2014 at 2:56 am

I read something on the Weston Price website (Caustic Commentary, Spring 2007) that said the percentage of the US population who were 100 or older was HIGHER in the 1830s than in 1990…in 1990 the percentage of people who were centenarians was about 25% lower! And since women had more children back then, that might be skewing the percentage of centenarians *down*!

md kennedy November 4, 2014 at 12:20 pm

FANTASTIC article with great references. Exactly what I need when people doubt m when I say that all the money we’ve invested in medical research by Big Pharm really has achieved little, and only made us dependent upon drugs instead of addressing the root cause of disease: modern lifestyle, particularly being sedentary and eating anything other than a plant-based diet! What I’d give for the “good old days” sometimes!

Kumar November 7, 2014 at 3:32 am

This is a nice insightful essay. However, the statistics was not just skewed by infant mortality and not all the improvement in life expectancy was due to improvement in medical technology. Your graph, for instance, shows that infant mortality came down from 21 to 1, but death at the age of 10-20 also came down from 4 to 1, 20-30 from 6 to 2, 30-40 from 8 to 3 and 40 to 50 from 9 to 7 finally reaching parity between 50 and 60. The perspective needs to look at cause of death at various ages, which will be revealing. In addition to infant mortality, one had frequent death of the mother due to childbirth, horrible working conditions leading to broken people with low life expectancy, poor sanitations causing increased infection, bad housing with insufficient warmth causing exposure, poor ventilation causing carbon monoxide/dioxide poisoning, unprotected equipment causing accidents (including seat belts), lead pipes and paint, mercury exposure, violence, and finally diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, which were major killers before their recognition and treatment. Medical reasons clearly include practices nicely described by George Orwell, where a trip to the doctor was essentially a test of resilience against all types of infection, neglect, exposure and abuse. Thus, statistics over time is not sufficient to reach meaningful conclusions on diets. Instead, one has to experimentally determine best practices to maintain lifelong health.

If one gets shot and somehow survives, it does not mean that bullets are not lethal. We are constantly getting bombarded by all types of stress and environmental insults, including exposure to numerous new chemicals that appear harmless only to escape injury and death most of the time. Over time some of these insults get us and reduce our healthy life expectancy and serve as modifiable risk factors. Diets do play a role, but what also matters is the individual response to the diet. It is also important to recognize that we are programmed to die from birth and are yet to understand how. Indeed, a lot of research funding is targeted towards specific diseases, but simply understanding how the body maintains health will ultimately find more useful solutions to all diseases.

Kathy November 12, 2014 at 9:57 am

Hi Kumar … thanks for the detailed comment! Just want to point out that the data in the chart doesn’t go back as far in time as the discussion in the article … good stats are hard to come by prior to 1900. The stats we have here are from cities where the issues you mention were a serious problem. Poor working conditions, check. Poor sanitation, check. And yes, death in childbirth which would have been an issue anywhere that people were malnourished, like the poor in large cities. I agree these statistics are too thin to be considered conclusive proof about diet. It is very interesting though.

For supporting proof I suggest people look at their own family tree. Find out about your Great-Great-Grandparents and their parents too. How long did they live? What kind of food did they eat? You can’t ask them ๐Ÿ˜‰ but you can make some pretty good assumptions about their diet by learning a little about how people in their region commonly ate. And yes, this kind of evidence in anecdotal, not scientifically valid proof. It’s up to you to decide though if such evidence is enough for you. Since an epidemiological study of our ancestors is not possible, and epidemiological study of modern people is rare and fraught with issues, I think this review of history is our best evidence. If all of our great great grandparents didn’t know a thing a thing about constructing a modern healthy diet and still somehow managed to live long healthy lives, well that speaks to me, and teaches me what a real honest healthy diet for humans looks like.

And as for accidental death, well my Great Great Grandfather somehow managed to survive the American Civil War only to die after he got home by being kicked in the head by a mule at the age of 23, I think. If he were a young man now, maybe he would have died in a car accident. Accidental death is always with us … just part of the human condition.

{ 14 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: