Life expectancy in the 1800s not as bad as reported

I can’t count how many times I’ve seen people write about how life expectancy has gone up dramatically because of modern [medicine|sanitation|technology|whatever]. Often they report (as this site does) (edit: here’s another) that the average life expectancy has increased to near-80 from something under 50 (43 in the first example, 62 in the 1930s in the second). For some time I’ve wondered whether this was life expectancy at birth (and therefore affected by infant mortality), which would be quite different than everyone keeling over before their grandchildren are out of diapers. This site gives the answer:

Life Expectancy by Age, 1850–2004 —

…and it’s clear that infant mortality was the issue in the 1800s, not general early death. Looking at white males (the first table) the life expectancy at birth in 1850 was indeed a dismal 38.3 years. But that’s incredibly misleading.
At age 10 the life expectancy had increased to 58.0 years.
The final number goes up for each subsequent column, but the big jump in life expectancy is from 0 to 10:
  • 0 to 10 — 19.7 years
  • 10 to 20 — 2.1 years
  • 20 to 30 — 3.9 years
  • 30 to 40 — 3.9 years
  • 40 to 50 — 3.7 years
  • 50 to 60 — 4.0 years
  • 60 to 70 — 4.6 years
  • 70 to 80 — 5.7 years.
The difference in life expectancy for a newborn and a ten year-old doesn’t mean that a newborn could actually expect to live an average of 38.3 years. It means that a newborn faced two distinct possible futures: he had somewhere between a 60 and 66% chance of living 58 years; and he had somewhere between a 34 and 40% chance of not living to see double-digits. The variance is due to the unknown average age of death for under-10s. If they all died as infants, then roughly 34% died that way. If they all died as 9 year-olds (far less likely it would seem) then 40% of them died that way. In any case, it’s fair to say that the majority of the reported prolonging of life is due to reducing childhood mortality
Comparing just life expectancy for 20 year-olds, in 1850 a young man could expect to live to 60.1. In 2004, that same man could expect to live to 76.7. That’s a significant improvement, but considering that in 1850 the germ theory of disease was just being formalized, it seems a little less impressive.
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23 thoughts on “Life expectancy in the 1800s not as bad as reported

    1. Mike

      Nonsense. Life spans increased because of the industrial revolution – they did not go down.

      What you’ve heard is a complete fallacy.

  1. Clayton Barbeau

    Thus is exploded one of the myths used to argue against a monogamous commitment: Margaret Meade used it and Vance Packard and other folks who didn’t know what they were talking about. In the 1970′s I listed it
    (in an address before an international gathering } as one the of the fallacious arguments: unlike our short lived ancestors we simply, because of extended life expectancy, be expected to stay married to the same person for life.

    The next stupid argument against monogamous marriage was the myth that 50% of all marriages end in divorce. I pointed out in the same address that when you ask the source of that figure the person using the argument does not know, or responds with the statement that last year there were two million marriages and one million divorces. Even those with little statistical smarts would know that the one million divorces did not come from the two million marriages, but from all marriages. The last time I looked the census said the divorce rate was around 7%….It was two years after my speech that Roper of the famed Roper Polls made the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle announcing his group’s discovery of that truth. However, the popular myth continues to be printed in magazines and tossed about as truth. Sigh.

  2. Raj

    Not much of a life, since most of them stuck to their bed and can’t move much. It’s still true, that life is worth living. People appear to live on average to an age of about 40.

  3. Tim

    It’s astounding how often I read articles in respected newspapers and websites where average life expectancy at birth is misinterpreted as the age past which nobody lives. A recent New York Times article used it as a reason why people in their seventies should not make too many plans for the future because the seventies are an “end.” Never mind that on average a seventy year old will live to be eighty-seven. And a article used the it as the reason why government health care programs for the elderly were unnecessary in revolutionary times, because supposedly everyone was dead by fifty.

  4. jc

    Yea and 1 in 2 people get cancer now but its not b/c they live longer it’s because they get x-rays. X-rays mutate DNA and cause cancer, we’ve known this for almost a century now but we’re still exposed to it by doctors even with safe alternatives like ultrasound and mri. Makes you wonder about population control and that quote by Prince Philip wishing to be reincarnated as a lethal human virus. A guy by the name of John Gofman who was an M.D. and a Ph.D. studied radiation from x-rays and concluded that 80% of cancer is caused by exposure to x-rays. Oh but that’s all just a giant coincidence. A million isolated incidents is all.

    1. Jon Setera

      I’m sorry, but half the world has cancer? Just don’t post if youre going to make up your own numbers.

      1. cait

        He didn’t say that right now half of all people have cancer. The longer you live the more likely you are to get cancer and the statistics are shocking. Currently, about 1 in 3 people alive today will die from cancer. This has more to do with increased longevity than getting your wrist x-rayed in middle school. As you get older your cells keep replicating. The more times you copy DNA the greater the chances of a mistake. It’s like playing telephone.

  5. Chris

    Even if most of the increase in life expectancy comes from reduced childhood mortality, it still reflects positively on the effect of modern health care and nutrition. If you lived in the past you were far more likely to die in your early life. I really don’t get your criticism

    There are many people that have the belief that life was much better in the distant past, I don’t see the evidence that supports supports that this way of thinking.

  6. Jon Setera

    This is a non issue. Medicine is real, it works, and the point is not that medicine MAKES YOU LIVE LONGER, it just prevents you from dying. Without medicine, children and elders would die from the common cold. Of all the ridiculous misconceptions perpetuated by the media and blog world, I can’t believe you chose this to latch on to.

  7. Historical Ken

    It is a coincidence that I also wrote of this same myth (, and I’m glad to see that others are dispelling this in a sensible way.
    Modernites have a tendency to believe the lies (“people were much shorter back then, that’s why they had smaller beds and lower ceilings”) rather than accept the truth about the past.
    A little research beyond the high school text book and what the college history professor believes one should know will eventually get rid of these false tales.

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