Monday, July 22, 2019

The Life Expectancy Myth

How long should we expect to live? All things being equal, human life expectancy is, on average, about 76 years. What might surprise you is that this has been true for at least a couple of thousand years. Yet most people believe that the generations before us couldn't expect to life past 45 or even 35 years. I once heard someone claim that ancient Egyptians had a life-expectancy of 25 years.

Medical treatment book, 1885
It's true that your chances of dying before 76 were higher some generations ago. We take for granted what medical doctors can do for us nowadays, whether we face our own unique afflictions or a wide-spread epidemic. Our ancestors, though, didn't have access to the level of medical expertise and treatments available today, and except in the direst of circumstances, they expected to doctor themselves. This was especially true in rural areas, where most families relied on a book of "physic" to guide their treatment of family members' illness or injury. Many, if not most of the recommended treatments, were useless, and in the case of a fatal illness or injury, often made the victim's last days and hours even more terrible. My g-g-g grandfather William Burdett died in 1841 of stomach cancer; in addition to leeches, one of the treatments used was tincture of creasote.

Bessie G. Rambo, 1867-1870
Elda Rambo, 1869-1870 (above)
Georgie Rambo, 1871-1872 (below) 
Except for smallpox, there were no vaccines available to ward off diseases that can be deadly, especially to children: measles and whooping cough being two examples. Neither was there a vaccine for tetanus, the agonizing "grinning death", that might develop from a cut, puncture wound, burn, or animal bite. If surgery were necessary, there was no anesthesia to block the pain, and no antibiotics to stop infection. Worse, there was little to no understanding of the role sanitation played in the prevention of infection or in stopping the spread of killer diseases like cholera, typhus, and yellow fever. An ancestor who lived to see her 76th year and beyond (my g-g-g grandmother, Jane Turner Holloway, lived to be 95) was unusual only because, in a long life, she avoided serious injury and/or a fatal disease at a time when medical knowledge was fairly primitive, and medical treatment often ineffective if not barbarous.

Injury and disease aside, the primary contributor to the mistaken idea that our ancestors had a short life-expectancy is childhood. Tragically, childhood has been a perilous life stage in all societies from earliest times until into the mid-20th Century. For most of human existence, 25% of infants (0-1 year old) died; 46% of those surviving infancy died before they were 15. The belief that our ancestors had much lower life-expectancy than we do is chiefly the result of skewed statistics: Too many adults died before their allotted time due to injury, disease, and poor to no medical treatment to statistically counterbalance the high percentage of infant and child deaths.

A 19th century surgeon prepares to amputate
So the next time you share your family tree with someone, and they are amazed to see people who lived into their 80's and 90's more than 150 years ago (because people "then" only lived to be about 40, didn't they?), please share this blog with them. Statistics don't lie; but statistics can be misunderstood. The life-expectancy thing is a case in point.

Childs, D. & Kansagra, S. "Ten Health Advances That Changed the World", retrieved 20 Jul 2019 at

Radford, B. "Human Lifespans Nearly Constant for 2000 Years", retrieved 21 Jul 2019 at

Roser, M. "Mortality in the Past-Around Half Died as Children, retrieved 21 Jul 2019 at

Bee, E. J., M.D. "Case of Scirrhous Pylorus" in American Medical Intelligencer, retrieved 3 Mar 2017 at

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating as always. These blogs should be put in a book and published as a money making chance for the Society.