Thursday, August 4, 2011

The "Average Life Expectancy" Myth

Nearly four years ago I wrote a posting about the "myth" of the average lifespan of our ancestors. Since then it's been one of the most popular postings on my blog so I thought I would update it a little; most of what I originally wrote is still here...

(As a follow up to this post, if you are interested in the mourning practices of those who lived in the 19th century, please click here)

OK, let's get rid of this misnomer that "the average lifespan of humans in 1860 was 45 years old," or " 1900 the average lifespan was 50 years old," or whatever other fallacy the e-mails 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, census records, or death records of long ago they would find a good majority of adults living to a ripe old age.
Just for our own information, let's look at the age of death from some of our Founding generation:
Thomas Jefferson was 83 when he died
John Adams was 90
George Washington was a young 67 - but he died due to blood loss from the then popular medical procedure bloodletting
George Wythe was 80
Paul Revere was 83
and Ben Franklin was 84
As you can see, even in America's colonial period it wasn't unusual to see people living to a ripe old age. In fact, many Revolutionary War vets lived long enough to have a photograph taken....Revolutionary War vets! (click HERE). These guys were in their 80s and 90s!

As a genealogist I have found that most of my 1st, 2nd, and even 3rd great grandparents lived well into their 60's, 70's, and 80's. Even my direct line dating back beyond the 3rd greats tended to have a long lifespan...well, at least of those I could find. And, yes, I have a couple that did die rather young - in their 40's and 50's. They were women and they died during childbirth.
So why is this false average lifespan information being passed around as fact? Because, technically, it is true - the average life span in 1860 actually was around 45 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. Death was extremely common, unfortunately, for infants before their first birthday. So common, in fact, that many parents would not even name the infant until it reached 1 or 2 years of age. My great great grandmother, Linnie Robertshaw, practiced this custom in the later part of the 19th century.
From one year old to five years the chances of death dropped for children. From five to 10 it continued to drop. And then it continued to drop further the older the child became. In fact, a life expectancy graph that I recently came across noted that "the greatest change in the overall life expectancy of American men since 1850 resulted in an increasing likelihood that they would reach the age of 5."
Hmmm...I've been saying that for years!
When I compared the graph of American women of the same period there was little difference with their male counterparts accept that women have always seemed to have a tendency to outlive men by a few years.
Of course, death for women during childbirth was quite high, but we in our modern day have lowered that quite dramatically.
And, 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.
By studying the graph and comparing men, women, and both genders together one can see that in the 19th century the older people got the more the likely hood that they would see life into their 60's or 70's or even 80's - just like today - and not become old and decrepit by the age of 40, as seems to be insinuated by the silly Facebook memes (which too many take as fact without researching) being passed around.
Please understand that I am in no way slighting the high death rate of children or of women of any era. That is and never has been my intention in writing this post. The losses of infants, children, and young mothers, just like now, was/is achingly heart wrenching.
It's only my hope to put these so-called historical facts into perspective so when anyone ever receives any of these average lifespan statistics coming through Facebook or through e-mail, that they will understand the intent is more for "shock" value rather than informational.

One more myth to challenge:
Let's dispel the myth that "people were shorter back then."
No they weren't.
Well, maybe about an inch or so. But the myth that the average height of a colonist was 5'4" or whatever is just that - a myth.
"But the ceilings were so low and the beds were so small!"
The ceilings (and doorways) were lower to retain the heat from fireplaces in the cold months - this is a proven fact. I needn't go further on this.
As for the beds being smaller, I finally found a very sound answer in an article by Tess Rosch in an issue of Early American Life magazine:
"According to measurements taken of Revolutionary War soldiers compared with recruits from the 1950's, the modern soldier is actually only about 2/3 of an inch taller. Our current soldiers could blend in quite easily with George Washington's recruits."
Rosch also pointed out research done on antique bedding owned by Colonial Williamsburg:
"Since there were no standardized beds until the Industrial Revolution, that should prove revealing. No bed was shorter than 6'3" and many were 6'8" long, the same length as today's 'king'!"
But why do the beds look so short?
"Optical illusion!" writes Rosch.
With all of the posts, testers, drapery, canopies, etc., that surrounded the bed vertically, it made them look smaller horizontally.
This research also refutes the myth that colonials had a tendency to sleep sitting up as many museums have stated. Taking the above into account, I have to agree that our colonial ancestors truly slept in the same horizontal position that we do today.

(As a follow up to this post, if you are interested in the mourning practices of those who lived in the 19th century, please click here)



Stephanie Ann said...

I have ancestor who lived to 91 which means although he was born in 1813, I still found a book with a photograph of him in it from the early 1900s.

It's weird because he was alive when my great grandfather was alive,and he is my great great great great grandfather.

Nice post! I can't stand it when people say things like "You're 20, your life was half over back then!"

Pamela@ The Sampler Makers Farmhouse said...

great information, and very interesting. Thanks so much!

Robin's Egg Bleu said...

Gosh, my family NOW seems to have a short life expectancy! My dad passed at 38, my mother at 55, her nephew at 50, her father and sister at 60. I turn 50 in two to live each day to the fullest 'cause I might not have too many more based on family history!

Historical Ken said...

Robin...Hopefully you know what they died from and will take the proper precautions not to follow in their footsteps! My father had his first heart attack at 49 and died at 55 from, you guessed it, a heart attack - he was an over-eater and ate mostly fatty foods. I am now 50 - - I am thin (he wasn't), don't smoke (he did...heavily), pretty active (he really wasn't), and eat much better (and much less) than he did. Only time will tell, eh?

the bee guy said...

Ken, do you and your family eat like they did in the 1800's? I mean things like butter, full fat milk, fatty home grown beef, etc..? Heart disease wasn't as common then as it is now. I believe if we started eating like our great, great grandparents we'd be a much healthier country.

Historical Ken said...

Bee Guy -
Yes and no. We have been, more and more, getting much of our meat from the Amish store not too far from where we live. Little or no chemicals.
Natural butter is an absolute must but milk is 2% mainly because it seems it remains fresher longer.
Unfortunately, I am a junk food junkie, but major cuts in pay at work is curing me of that habit.
I believe as you that our ancestors were healthier in general than we are today. They worked - really worked - and that's why they were much more fit physically and mentally.
Thank you for your comments.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Thank you for writing this!

Isis said...

This made me check out my family book that cover six generations, starting in 1724 and ending with my grandfather who was born in 1911, sex generations. On the men's side they died at the ages 65, 61, 84, 85, 80 and 93. Their wives died at 78, 28, 66. 80, 86 and 92. We are talking about a wealthy family in Sweden here, so not underfed and overworked, but still, everyone, except one, grew quite old.

cmadler said...

On the other hand... "It is a sobering thought that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years." -- Tom Lehrer ;-)

Unknown said...

Great article. I work at a history museum and tell people this stuff all the time.

Unknown said...

this is a very interesting article because I didn't know people died that early in those days.

Pepita933 said...

I've slept in those old beds, and have to comment that they, at least 2 of the beds that were passed down in my family were too short for my 5'7 1/2 height. As to not being taller, well again I would have to ask over what period of time. An inch in 150-200 years is a pretty big increase. Vacationing in Hastings England there is a old castle made of native materials. Much is made with A sandstone. This sandstone material was used in their prison prison. The Hallways at 5'7" I could walk without bending over but the ceiling was brushing the top of my head. The cell where the prisoners were questioned there remained chain remains indicating where the arms were shackled. Since the walls had so much sandstone you could see the area where the men's heads rubbed the sand away. The guide said the average height was about 5'5.

Once again I think nutrition plays a part. Many of our early settlers came from countries without the abundance of wild game that our country still had in such abundance.
I found it really surprising that soap as we know it was very expensive in England and I suspect Europe. The rest of the folks used a fern that they used as a soap. Fat was simply in short supply. In the U.S. Pigs were in good supply, since they procreated rapidly! Much of the wild game that I can think of is very lean meat. Fat has always been what carries flavor in food and therefore has been coveted by anyone who likes to eat good food!

Well, enough about fat!

Unknown said...

Need to be able to share to Facebook

Roger in Republic said...

My late father(born 1913) once told me that my generation(born 1947) was the first generation in our history that did not spend our sundays visiting the graves of our siblings. In his childhood he survived during outbreaks of Spanish influenza, Typhoid, Cholera, Smallpox, and all the usual childhood diseases. He reached adulthood before the advent of antibiotics when even common infections could kill.

Ken Mitchell said...

People WERE shorter, long ago. When "rapid transit" was a cart being pulled by an ox, you didn't generally move far away. As a man, you married a girl from your village, or PERHAPS the next village over. After a few hundred years in the same place, almost every person in the village was some variety of cousin. (As we all are now, just to a more distant degree.)

Look at the Japanese. The "stereotypical" Japanese person in the mid-1800s were quite short. (Or go to the Tower of London and look at King Henry's armor!) Sorry; back to the Japanese. Starting in the second half of the 19th Century, many Japanese peasant farmers were recruited to move to Hawaii. In Hawaii, the short Japanese men met and married short Japanese women, but often NOT from the same villages in the same prefectures. Their Nisei children ("ni" is the Japanese word for "two", so "Nisei" meant "second generation") were taller than their parents, and the Sansei ("san" = 3) children were taller yet. Why? Any farmer can tell you about "hybrid vigor".

So why are you noting that in the 1700s and later, Americans were not short? Because in moving from Europe to America, the colonists had already BEEN hybridized. British man moves to the Colonies and meets a British woman also new to the Colonies - but from a different village, perhaps even from a [gasp!] different COUNTY. Their children will be taller, and THEIR children taller yet, especially when the English men started marrying the French women, with whom they had very little genetic connection.

James Burke did three TV series called "Connections". In the first episode of "Connections 3", Burke noted that the inventor James Watt had kicked off THREE massive changes in history. The first, of course, was the development of the steam engine, which powered the Industrial Revolution. But steam engines powered railroad locomotives, which gave people the chance to move out of their villages and into the cities, and meet and marry people NOT RELATED TO THEM. Near-universal "hybrid vigor" has increased the height and improved the health of the majority of humans. (Watt's 3rd "revolution" was the bureaucracy, made possible by the invention of carbon paper.)

So, no, by the time of the American colonies, the people weren't "short" - but their grandparents probably WERE.

Historical Ken said...

As noted in the article:
"According to measurements taken of Revolutionary War soldiers compared with recruits from the 1950's, the modern soldier is actually only about 2/3 of an inch taller. Our current soldiers could blend in quite easily with George Washington's recruits."
This posting centers roughly from RevWar (1770s) through Civil War era Americans, not Japanese.
I stand by what I wrote.

eintouhou said...

I completely agree with you, on this subject with height and life expectancy. I would think that most deaths caused through out 12th-20th century is rampant warfare, war attrition, and disease. Not that some how people fall over at the age of 35, which I now see is being considered as the life expectancy on some sites, and just the plain reasoning. The reason? They just magically fall over into their death. Magistrate Samuel Sewall lived to be in his 80s. This is just one example of course. I do believe that people who managed to stay out of trouble, keep food in their stomach, and didn't die in battle at least lived to a normal age of 60-75. Also I think the entire splinter/cut/scratch thing is a myth as well. Even if the response to that is, "They never bathed!" is accounted for, that only really pertains to the English in poverty. Germans brought over with them to America their 'pagan tradition' of at least bathing once a week on the weekend.

phyllis66 said...

Hallelujah, you have written what I have long suspected to be the truth about the longevity of our ancestors.

I research a great deal of people in history and started being amazed at the age of their deaths. I won't go into who and at what age they died as I didn't retain that information from memory but the facts of truth seems to be given to us as a deception.

Granted, there seems to be many children that died in ancestral times but the adult population seems to be as equal as to today as far as longevity is concerned.

I suppose like all statistics, it depends on who is doing the study and what parameters they are using which determines their conclusions.

I am just thrilled to finally see in writing a person that states what I have been knowing for quite a long while.


Kenn St. Nick said...

In colonial times infant mortality brought the "average" life span down considerably. Epidemics of cholera, influenza, and smallpox sometimes took 40% of those under 20 years of age. If you survived to 20, your odds extended your L.E. to 45 or 55, and the privledged lived to 80 or better due to education, diet, and health care.

Historical Ken said...

Nearly everyone of my colonial ancestors lived into their 60s, 70s, and even one lived into his 80s, and they were far from being gentrys.
I believe that, other than infant mortality and the diseases, many more people lived into old age than was previously thought. Even the farmers I researched (for I enjoy historical farming practices) tended to live into the 70s.
The 45 to 55 seems more of an exception than the norm for the period, especially in America.

Unknown said...

Well and as statistics will show the average or the mean isn’t immune to outliers like death at child birth or at an early age or an extremely old age just a few outliers can drastically change an average, that’s why perhaps the median would be a more accurate description of the lifespan of the majority of people (that didn’t die at birth etc.)

Unknown said...

I have always LOVED James Burke and the Connections series. 😁

Anonymous said...

The comments concerning the significance of life expectancy tables are correct. Such numbers only mean that 1/2 of a particular population can expect to live below the average and 1/2 can expect to exceed the average lifetime. All such statistics can only be applied after learning and considering unique factors which affect them. For example, a significant drop in the life expectancy of American males occurred after 1860 because hundreds of thousands of young men died in the Civil War. Obviously, the war had no impact on the lifespan of men who were non-combatants. High infant mortality had a huge effect on life expectancy before improvement of sanitation, availability of prenatal care and development of antibiotics reduced those numbers. All statistics must be analyzed taking into account the particular factors which influence the outcomes.

Marc in MA said...

This question has been systematically studied by the historian Richard White and his students, who found that for white, American-born males, the only cohort for which there were good data, average life expectancy and average height declined from 1820 to 1890, only rising at the end of the 19th century. White attributes the decline in overall health to the economic dislocation that came along with industrialization and the movement of people from rural farms to urban factory jobs. Although the economy overall grew in the 1800s, the wealth generally was not shared with these new workers, and life in cities in the 1800s was made precarious by epidemic diseases such as typhoid and periodic economic recessions that left workers stranded without any sources of income. One of the odd features of the Gilded Age was that the US became a world economic power, yet poverty increased among working folks. This indeed was the title of one of the more influential books of the time, Progress and Poverty by Henry George. The decline in life expectancy was eventually reversed around the start of the 20th century once the germ theory of disease became accepted and cities instituted public works programs to provide clean water and sewer systems, and tenement laws were instituted to mandate fresh air and sanitation requirements in private housing.

I would be somewhat careful about relying on anecdotal accounts of how long particular individuals lived during some period, because these accounts are difficult to control and tend to be skewed towards the survivors.

Unknown said...

What exactly is 'old age' ? Lol

Charles Tarlton said...

This is very interesting but your examples demonstrating long-lived 18th Century Americans do not support your contention. The Founding Fathers you listed were not representative of the population. They were rich compared to others not in their strata. Some of them were considerably less rich than others, but they were rich and endowed by someone with the elements of longer life. If you are well fed all your life, you are going to be healthier. If you live in sound housing well supplied with quilts and blankets, with several rooms so that you are breathing lower concentrations of air someone else has already breathed odds are you’re going to live longer than the hired laborer down the road or the slave in the cabin back of the house. If you have servants to tend to the livestock in the cold rain and snow or just the cold your life expectancy rises. , if you have if a servant is doing at least some of the cooking in the fireplace and therefore diminishing your risks of clothes catching fire (Skirts aflame were the second-highest cause of women’s deaths, behind childbirth), if you had help to fetch the water and empty and clean the chamber pots, if you had your own dedicated source of water, if you had more than one set of clothes and sound shoes, if you have a good supply of firewood and someone other than yourself to chop it in inclement weather, if you’re not in the fields with a hoe or haddock from dawn to dusk, you probably will live longer. If you can take to your bed when you start getting sick rather going into the woods and forests to work because the family has to eat, you will probably live longer. If you own significant land and therefore have a lot of control over who you come in contact with, you’ll probably live longer.If you are have friends and relatives who are similarly blessed, you can stay in their houses that are much like your own when you travel, not in the usually atrocious inns with filthy beds and suspect food and you’ll probably live longer. Many of those factors, particularly nutrition and exposure to disease, mean that the the hoi polloi will be notably shorter than the people at the top of the ladder. You don’t need ancient records to see this. The records of children in Western Europe after WW II and compared to their parents showed that in the working classes, the social and economic reforms led to better-nourished children who grew into adults significantly taller than their parents and grandparents. The same was noted in America after cereal and milk companies started fortifying their products with all sorts of vitamins and minerals.. In no society has the upper crust ever been representative of the whole population.

Jack said...

The poorer you were, the sooner you died. People worked physically harder and their diet was not the best. Families were big in those days and consequently, there were less food for everybody. Living conditions were far from what they are today. Also, diseases struck many early, diseases that are eradicated today. Generally, the rich and the strongest survived.

Cantsayit said...

We may need to eat differently than our great great grandparents though since we don't live like them. That full fat milk, fatty meat and butter isn't burned away while we get in a car and twist a key for it to start, and only feed it gasoline and oil we just lift a gas pump nozzle and a little bottle to do. Then go to work sitting at a desk. No lifting horse feed, putting saddles on our horses and taking them off again when we need to go out somewhere too far to walk. Work is on a farm or a mine or assembly line. All activities that make a fatty diet more safe than it is today. Here in rural Central PA people live like their grandparents minus the physical work and end up way over weight and dead under life expectancy levels.

Rogger said...

The concept of "average life expectancy" can be misunderstood or misconstrued in certain contexts. Life expectancy is a statistical measure that represents the average number of years a person can expect to live based on current mortality rates. It's often presented as a single number for a population or a specific demographic group.

BigSir said...

Are you still alive?

BigSir said...

The reason it wasn't as common likely was because relatively few people would visit the doctor as frequently as they do today so many people were likely undiagnosed. That and the fact that medical science has progressed so we can now detect heart problems more effectively