Sunday, March 2, 2008

Average Lifespan Misinformation in History

(For an update on this posting, please click here)

OK, let's get rid of this misnomer that "the average lifespan of humans in 1863 was 39 years old," or " 1900 was 43 years old," or whatever other fallacy the emails or statisticians say. I mean, it sounds like if you were 39 in the 1860's you had one foot in the grave, for Pete's sake!
Well, let's clear this mess up once and for all:
In general, folks in the 18th and 19th centuries lived nearly as long as we do today. Yes, it's true. If one would take the time to read journals of the period, or census records of long ago they would find a good majority of adults living to a ripe old age.
So why is this false information being passed around as fact? Because, technically, it is true - the average life span in 1862 may have been 39 years of age. The average lifespan. Now, take into account that, up until the mid 20th century, the infant mortality rate was pretty high. Er...I mean, very high. In some areas nearly one out of every two infants died before their first birthday. And then, from one year old to five years that percentage dropped. From five to 10 it dropped again. And so on and so forth. In other words, the older you got, the chances are you would probably see life into your 60's or 70's or even your 80's, just like today. Of course, death for women during childbirth was quite high, but we, in our modern day, have been able to prevent that situation from happening almost completely.
Yes, people did die of heart attacks, consumption (TB), cancer, pneumonia, and measles. People today die of cancer, heart attacks, and pneumonia as well. But, where 100 years ago they had consumption, we have aids. We also have a higher murder rate per capita here in the 21st century in comparison (here are some stats about this particular comment from the history news network ( :

By the 18th Century, colonial Americans were the most heavily armed people in the world," yet murders were "rare" and "few" involved guns "despite their wide availability."

American homicide remained low until the 1840s. Relatively modern rapid-fire weapons only became common after the Civil War when hundreds of thousands of military surplus revolvers and lever action rifles were sold. Yet, far from rising in the post-Civil War era, homicide fell off sharply from the 1870s to 1900 -- despite the 1870s mass marketing of cheap "Saturday Night Specials."

Anyhow, what it boils down to is that if you ever see any of these average lifespan stats, take them with a grain of salt and put the whole thing into its perspective.


Kris McCracken said...

Fair point. It is interesting how life span figures are often misinterpreted in understanding the past. Similarly, the lack of general awareness around mortality rates and the young also interests me, especially when people today try to moan how "horrible it is for young people today". That never ceases to amuse me.

Anyway, great site, keep it up!

Chris Lowe said...

This is partly true but I believe is overstated.

In the first place we should not slight the toll of high infant, child and maternal mortality on our ancestors. Those deaths were deeply painful even if "expected" at high levels, and costly in other respects.

Secondly, even if you look at average life expectancy at age 5, or age 20, there are quite significant differences due to the effects of infectious disease, intensified especially among the poor by undernutrition, workplace deaths, and overwork.

You are quite right in saying averages disguise distributions. But if we take it this way: What were your chances of dying by age 1, by age 5, by age 20, by age 40, by age 60, by age 80, before 1900 they were very much greater for every age below 80, before 1940 substantially greater, considerably greater before 1970, and the gains since 1970 are big enough to matter.

The "great transformation" came with the public health measures relating to sanitation & clean drinking water between 1900 and 1940, with significant further gains based on vaccination from 1940 to 1970.

Historical Ken said...

I hope I did not come across as slighting our ancestors in any way about infant or maternal mortality rates. If I did, then I apologize. I only meant to show how common this was to help make my point.
But, I do thank you for your thoughts, opinions, and information.

GPatience said...

You missed some very important facts: 20 % of deaths in the 1860 was because of diarrhea. If I remember correctly over 40 % and maybe even over 50 were due stomach ailments and (caused by bacteria). then there was another 20 % caused by consumption - people died young. Just go to any old cemetery. There are few people over 70.

Historical Ken said...

Thanks for your information, GPatience.
I love old cemeteries as well and spend time in them looking up local histories.
Although I agree that, yes, many have died from the various causes you have mentioned, I have found many many from that era in cemeteries and in many family histories who lived to a decent age. My own father was the youngest descendant in my direct line to die, for instance. He died at 55 in 1982 while his father, his grandfather, and the two greats before all lived to a minimum age of 76 - this is going back to the late 1700's.
I'm not saying there weren't people that died young, but there were many more that lived to a ripe old age - much more than people realize ("The average lifespan was 50" or whatever "in 1860").
I'm not taking away from the facts, just trying to add to give a more rounded picture.
Thanks again.

Unknown said...

I wonder what the average American lifespan is now, factoring in the abortion like infant mortality.