Life Expectancy Myths

Don’t drop dead, Buzzkillers. At least not yet. It’s not your time.

You live in the modern world with all the advantages of modern medicine and modern life-prolonging practices, right? The life expectancy for the average American is 75.5.

People in the past had much lower life expectancies. You often hear that ancient peoples (especially pre-historic peoples) had a life expectancy of 35 years or so. The Encyclopedia of Population (2003) says that it was between 20–35. European life expectancy in the 1750s was just under 40.

Once reliable demographic statistics became available and life expectancy could be calculated with a good degree of accuracy, we had these numbers. For American men, life expectancy in:

1907 – 45.6 years
1957 – 66.4 years
2007 – 75.5 years

So people didn’t live much past the life expectancy for their time, right? In 1907, you were watching the calendar nervously and putting your affairs in order as your 46th birthday approached, right?

Nope, unless your long-suffering spouse put poison in your birthday cake. Chances are, you would have lived to a nice, old age of at least 70.

The mistake people make, and the reason we have a “life expectancy myth,” is that we confused “life expectancy” with average adult life span. Life expectancy is the average number of years a person was/is expected to live at birth. Pre-historic newborns had a life expectancy of 30-ish years. 2015 newborns have a life expectancy of just over 75 years.

Why the difference?

Infant mortality. Many children died at birth. The years 0-5 were also perilous in pre-historic times. And even ages 5-10 had higher death rates than adults.

We only have reliable stats for recent times, but they show how high infant mortality was and how much it has dropped.

Infant mortality rates in the US:

1907 – 10%
1957 – 2.63%
2007 – 0.68%

Historical demographers and statisticians have shown that if you made it past the age of five, and especially if you made to age 10, your chances of reaching old age were very high indeed. Old age was common in the past.

Most modern scholars calculate that, once infant and childhood mortality are removed from the equation, even pre-historic peoples had a long lifespan. How long? How about 70-80 years?

Yep, that’s right, adult people have more or less always had the same expected lifespan as they do now. How is this possible, with all the advances in medicine and science we’ve had?

Many experts argue that the nature of death has changed. In prehistoric times, external injuries were the leading cause of death. In pre-industrial, agricultural societies, most people died from infectious diseases. In the last two centuries, cardiovascular diseases and cancers are the major cause of death. Pre-historic people generally didn’t have to deal with those “modern” maladies.

So you have a lot more in common with your ancestors than you thought. You’ll eventually be an old geezer just like they were old geezers.

Buzzkill Bookshelf

James C. Riley, Rising Life Expectancy: A Global History

Between 1800 and 2000 life expectancy at birth rose from about 30 years to a global average of 67 years, and to more than 75 years in favored countries. This dramatic change was called a health transition, characterized by a transition both in how long people expected to live, and how they expected to die. Rising Life Expectancy examines the way humans reduced risks to their survival, both regionally and globally, to promote world population growth and population aging.

Posted in