Lifespans in History
August 23, 2004 4:11 PM   Subscribe

Life span, longevity and history... (MI)

I had an argument the other day with my friend concerning longevity and life span through history. He claims that people of history would have been lucky to live to be old and that most people died in their 30's or 40's. He added that people were practically married at 15, had kids and worked hard and died young.

I disagreed with him. Practically all historical figures seem to have lived into old age and the stories I have read and heard from historical accounts makes it seem as though there were plenty of old people around. It's not like old men and women are a modern thing.

My thinking is that the numbers that are often cited, 35 year life expectency for example, are only so low because of the high frequency of infant death. Who's right? Can you please use links to back up your arguments?

GOD DAMNIT! That's the second time I've screwed it up and posted the content of the "MI" on the front page of ASKME. I'm sorry Matt, other concerned parties. I'm a foul-up.
posted by crazy finger to Society & Culture (37 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
crazy finger: I've often had this argument with people because of their interpretation of the oft-cited fact that people are living longer. Yes, on average our life spans are longer, mainly due to the drastic reduction in infant deaths. As a whole, a person's individual life span is not longer than someone who lived hundreds of years ago. The human body can last a good while. We've just managed to make more people last longer, not actually extend the ability of the human body to keep going for 200 years. That kind of thinking is for movies.

I'm sorry, but I can't remember where I read the article about this. It was years ago.
posted by strangeleftydoublethink at 4:25 PM on August 23, 2004

I think in the longer term (more than 500 years ago), it really was true, that people lived to be 30-35 or so. There isn't anyone in ancient egypt that lived beyond 30-something.

I often think this is the reason why my body has sort of gone downhill since 30. I don't think our teeth, hair, muscles, etc were meant to be used this long.
posted by mathowie at 4:33 PM on August 23, 2004

In colorado, a timecapsol was opened that had been made in the late 1890's. The paper had an article about an elderly woman having died. She was 44.
posted by Stynxno at 4:39 PM on August 23, 2004

In 1900, the average life expectancy at birth was 48 for men and 51 for women. But if you looked at the average life expectancy of people born that year who survived to age 20 and had made it past the dangerous period of childhood, it worked out to 62 for men and 64 for women. [...] Olshansky said that the current life expectancy at birth is about 75 for men and 80 for women - "Great expectations for longevity are rooted in history, but how old can we go?", Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 18, 2004 (It's the first Google result for "longevity history"...)
posted by nicwolff at 4:40 PM on August 23, 2004

As far as I understand it (and I do not have a reference to back this up either!), the advent of the middle class is what has made average lifespans so much longer. Sure, there were people of note back in the day who lived longer, but there was a very SMALL creative & owner class - and of course the painters, philosophers, kings, inventors who lived "normal" length lives were part of this class. But the VAST majority of folks did not.
posted by luriete at 4:44 PM on August 23, 2004

Basic life expectancy numbers tend to exaggerate this growth, however. The low level of pre-modern life expectancy is distorted by the previous extremely high infant and childhood mortality. If a person did make it to the age of forty they had an average of another twenty years to live. Improvements in medicine, public health and nutrition have therefore mainly increased the numbers of people living beyond childhood, with less effect on overall average lifespan.
- interesting wikipedia article
posted by CunningLinguist at 4:53 PM on August 23, 2004

"I often think this is the reason why my body has sort of gone downhill since 30. I don't think our teeth, hair, muscles, etc were meant to be used this long."

Could you elaborate for us.... kids? What do you mean your teeth weren't meant to last that long? How does it feel? Does it hurt?
posted by Keyser Soze at 5:25 PM on August 23, 2004

Don't forget that most of the specific people you still hear about, i.e. famous folks, we usually at the top of the socioeconomic scale and therefore had access to lifespan-extending food, lack of labor, etc.
posted by gottabefunky at 5:30 PM on August 23, 2004

And to be famous in the first place, one generally had to live a while.
posted by dness2 at 5:36 PM on August 23, 2004

Keyser: speaking from my own experience (age 29), the body isn't as resilliant as you move past your mid-20's. For example, an all-nighter when I was an undergrad was no big deal, but if I stay up all night now, it takes days for me to feel fully recovered. You get more mystery aches and pains, injuries don't heal as quickly, it's easier to gain weight, etc.

The key is to start taking really good care of yourself as you approach 30. That way, you can stave off some of the body's natural decline.
posted by gokart4xmas at 5:42 PM on August 23, 2004

What do you mean your teeth weren't meant to last that long? How does it feel? Does it hurt?

I've cracked three or four teeth now, and have had two root canals due to things that happened years ago (bike crashes eventually kill the root of your tooth). My gums are receding at an alarming pace and if I skipped the dentist for just a couple years (I only went to the dentist a handful of times in my entire 20s), many things can go wrong in a short period of time.

Muscle pain is really what shocked me after 30. If I spend a few hours doing something out of the ordinary (yardwork, rowing a boat, painting a fence, whatever), I'll feel sore for several days to a week afterwards.
posted by mathowie at 6:58 PM on August 23, 2004

Response by poster: Awesome answers (Askme is better than a Google research team).

So, basically, I was right and my friend, wrong. Good to have that reaffirmed by a group of people that, in the future, will be considered the greatest minds of our generation. And to think, an aging, decrepit, falling-to-pieces Mathowie made it all possible.
posted by crazy finger at 6:59 PM on August 23, 2004

Response by poster: Matt, I'm 23. The other day I bit into the hard crust of a loaf of bread and a piece of one of my rear teeth broke off. I don't have dental insurance so... que sera sera.
posted by crazy finger at 7:03 PM on August 23, 2004

Matt, go to a gym or something, dude. I am 45 and I don't get all that sore are still young enough for that to be a factor of fitness, not age.
posted by konolia at 7:05 PM on August 23, 2004

So, basically, I was right and my friend, wrong.


The AgeWave organization advocates the theory that society is unprepared for medical breakthroughs which have drastically extended lifespan. Their premise is that our cutures were all formed over centuries of people living to 30-40, but now the situation has changed, and we need to wake up to it if we're going to handle that well. I became familiar with them via some print materials I saw. I'm not sure how much detail you'll find on their site. They're kind of a publisher, kind of a PAC, generally advocating the interests of the elderly.

I don't think your "historical figure" evidence actually amounts to anything. You've gotta consider that homo sapiens have been around for hundreds of thousands of years before there was anything called "history," and, even ignoring that, your evidence is anecdotal at best. I'd bet, as gottabefunky says, that the historical figures you've heard of were all pretty wealthy types, presidents and such, likely exceptional cases in terms of health care, etc. Not representative of the whole.

Ah.... and as Stynxno's link suggests: infant mortality is part of the reason the average was so low. Until 1911, it appears that a 10 year old had a better chance of living to a ripe age than an infant. That's another nail in the "historical figures" coffin. You've certainly never heard of anyone who died at 2 days old.
posted by scarabic at 7:15 PM on August 23, 2004

There isn't anyone in ancient egypt that lived beyond 30-something.

Ramesses II (Usermaatresetepenre) 1279-1213 B.C. The son of Seti I and Queen Tuya was the third king of the 19th Dynasty. Called Ramesses the Great, he lived to be 96 years old, had 200 wives and concubines, 96 sons and 60 daughters.
posted by languagehat at 7:21 PM on August 23, 2004

Response by poster: scarabic - the historical figures thing is just anecdotal, like Hannibal living into his 70's or 80's, but my main argument with my friend was the infant death thing. I said infant death artificially deflated average life spans, he said people mainly died at 30-ish.

Speaking of infant death rate dropping, hasn't modern science lowered the age of viability dramatically since Rowe v Wade?
posted by crazy finger at 8:14 PM on August 23, 2004

Perhaps Matt is thinking of the study by the Paleopathologist Andreas Nerlich "who investigated New Kingdom and Late Period tombs at Thebes the main age of death was between 20 and 40 years, peaking between 20 and 30. Infants and children constituted about a quarter of the buried." I believe he examined about 400 tombs.

Referenced here

I think ancient people had the capacity to live just as long as we do but were often taken down by things that today could be solved by antibiotics. For many friends I know, they can point to some early or recent medical condition that would have killed them in older times. This is true for me, twice(!) in my early years; A nearly fatal pneumonia in my first year and later, an emergency hernia operation at the age of 8. Its nice to be here. :)

One of Nerlich's interesting findings was the high rate of death by cancer in Thebes.
posted by vacapinta at 8:17 PM on August 23, 2004 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Also, I think that there is a false argument, kind of, about the wealthiest and richest people having healthier lives in the old days.

Sure, not having to work all of your life was a major life span extender, but rich people did other things that led to their deaths to make up for it - lack of exercise and unhealthy diets for one (like modern people in much of the world).

As for healthcare, there really wasn't that much that doctors could do until pretty recently. Having a heart attack? Have some Brandy. Fingers hurt? Amputate the arm. Reminds me of the famous story of Jack Daniels. He got pissed off one day at being unable to open his safe and he kicked it. His toe was broken, became infected, several attempts at amputating the gangrenous infection, and Jack Daniels eventually died.
posted by crazy finger at 8:19 PM on August 23, 2004

>As for healthcare, there really wasn't that much that doctors could do until pretty recently
Something similar: in months gone by, there was a link here at Metafilter, saying that during his trial, Charles Guiteau admitted to shooting James Garfield but said Garfield's doctors killed him.
posted by philfromhavelock at 8:35 PM on August 23, 2004

Dental health and general health.
posted by Feisty at 8:42 PM on August 23, 2004

I think it really comes down to a couple of pretty straightforward observations:

1) Look at human sexual development. Kids don't reach puberty at 13 or so because nature wants to give them a few years of practice. That happens because, until very recently, that was when you could--and usually did--begin to have your own children.

From having studied a fair amount of history, I don't think that's a singular element--in the Middle Ages, people did pretty clearly reach most life milestones well before we did today, physically as well socially. The basic idea of "childhood" is a pretty modern invention, and it's only very, very recently that the idea of an adolescence, where kids from 12-18 get to escape the burdens of adulthood, wouldn't have gotten laughed out the door.

2) Just look at the existing gap in lifespans today's world, between the industrialized world and less-developed nations. It's too late to dig around for the numbers now, but I've really never heard an argument that even if you subtracted infant mortality rates from the lifespans in some of the poorer countries of the world, that you'd find the have the same lifespans as here in the US. (And that's with the benefit of some minimal modern medicine thrown in.)

Living in an agrarian, human-labor-based economy is hard, and it takes a toll on you from the day you're born till the day you die. Sure, high infant-death rates skew the numbers even more, but everything I've ever learned about history, and seen about historic lifespans, seems to clearly indicate that we live longer lives now, in the industrialized world, with life milestones that are spread much farther apart.
posted by LairBob at 9:07 PM on August 23, 2004

There's an interesting statistic that the average life expectancy in the UK city of Manchester during the Industrial Revolution fell to 17, as opposed to much higher figures for agricultural workers in the period.
posted by biffa at 2:27 AM on August 24, 2004

Don't forget, as well, that mortality rates among women have skewed dramatically older in recent years thanks to advances in obstetrics. Mothers dying in childbirth was not too uncommon before the 20th century.
posted by mkultra at 7:57 AM on August 24, 2004

>Speaking of infant death rate dropping, hasn't modern
>science lowered the age of viability dramatically since Rowe v

Yep. There was a recent story in the NYT about a young lady - age 13, I believe - who was a 27-weeker, now has normal intelligence, plays the violin. However, at age 13 she's still only 4'7" and 61 lbs.

We're taught that 24-28 weeks is a sort of grey area - the kids are technically 'viable' but we neurologists often have to take lifelong care of the survivors - cerebral palsy, epilepsy, mental retardation, other nasty things.

So much has gone on this century that it's hard to sort it all out with respect to the specific effects, but it seems to me (I study the epidemiology of epilepsy) after looking at the Rochester, MN data from 1935-1984 that somewhere around the 1960's, there was a spike up in preemie survival and a similar spike upwards in infant epilepsy. A possible conclusion is that, though more preemies were surviving, the survivors were more likely to carry chronic complications away with them from their difficult beginnings in the neonatal ICUs.

It's an interesting question and loaded with pitfalls for the unwary epidemiologist.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:25 AM on August 24, 2004

So, basically, I was right and my friend, wrong.

Well, everything I see in this thread points to the answer falling somewhere in between the two of you.

In addition to the other factors cited, you can't tell me that advancements in medicine and hygeine haven't moved the average life expectancy up, notwithstanding the change in infant/childhood mortality. Kidney dialysis, pacemakers, chemotherapy, angioplasty, heart bypass, etc., etc., etc.
posted by pardonyou? at 9:23 AM on August 24, 2004

I said infant death artificially deflated average life spans, he said people mainly died at 30-ish.

Well, I think you're both right then. But each of you is emphasizing a different aspect of the same phenomenon. His "mainly" needs to be backed up statistically, and your "articificially" does as well.

He'd be wrong to think that infant mortality hasn't decreased recently, but I find it hard to argue with the view that average lifespan has increased, too.
posted by scarabic at 9:26 AM on August 24, 2004

To Matt and otherswho feel their bodies are wearing out in their mid-thirties: There's a good reason for this. Your body only exists to shoot a few sperm or have a few babies and so transmit your DNA to the next generation. Once you are past your peak years of potency and fertility, nature is through with you. She lifts her magic wand from your head, and moves on, leaving you to wither. Any years past -- say -- age 36, are a dying coda.
posted by Faze at 11:27 AM on August 24, 2004

The question sounds like life in the book, “Little House on the Prarie."
posted by thomcatspike at 11:33 AM on August 24, 2004

Your body only exists to shoot a few sperm or have a few babies and so transmit your DNA to the next generation.

I totally agree with this, sad as it is. And it's not at all necessary that we be happy or particularly healthy along the way. Live to 15 with only one leg and two teeth left, but manage to knock down a female and "shoot a few sperm," and you've fulfilled your genetic imperative. Nasty, brutish, and short, indeed.

/misogyny disclaimer: not advocating the above in any way, just hypothesizing about evolutionary design
posted by scarabic at 11:52 AM on August 24, 2004

Incidentally: one of my college professors said that women used to get their periods a little later than they do now, because that change is partially triggered by how much light your body is exposed to. With electric light hitting the body by night, and sunlight by day, we absorb more faster than cave-folk did.

I don't have a link to support this, nor do I necessarily believe it. Anyone else ever heard this?
posted by scarabic at 11:54 AM on August 24, 2004

Mathowie is right, everything hurts more as you get older, KS. The teeth are the first to go. :-D Then you start noticing your vision isn't as sharp or clear as it was. 8-( Unusual activities begin to cause unusual muscle pains as you age. In your 40's, your joints begin to ache. I'm 20 years older than Matt; I walk every day, weight-train for upper body strength 2x a week and do yoga 3x a week, religiously. What those things do is help with flexibility and strength, and stuff still hurts, yet I feel that I am in pretty good shape for my age. I have already added my DNA to the gene pool, and I'm determined to stay as healthy and fit as possible in my remaining years.
posted by Lynsey at 12:19 PM on August 24, 2004

I don't have a link to support this, nor do I necessarily believe it. Anyone else ever heard this?

I haven't heard it about light, but I have heard of studies that indicate that exposure to sexually charged material (i.e. movies, etc.) at a young age cause a girl to go through puberty earlier. Today, getting your period at 11 is no big deal; fifty years ago, the average was probably more like 14. (Both are still within a "normal" range today, though.)

Also, I don't know if it's related to the lack-of-light or lack-of-sexually-charged-material or both, but Scandinavian women traditionally go through a rather late puberty--Isaac Asimov noted as much when discussing his wife Janet in one of his biographies, and how that permanently screwed with her sense of self-esteem re: her looks.
posted by Asparagirl at 12:55 PM on August 24, 2004

To Matt and otherswho feel their bodies are wearing out in their mid-thirties: There's a good reason for this. Your body only exists to shoot a few sperm or have a few babies and so transmit your DNA to the next generation. Once you are past your peak years of potency and fertility, nature is through with you

I don't agree with this. Thats a rather narrow view of things. Modern evolutionary theory also involves looking at broader contexts. The reason women continue to live past their child-bearing years is not because they have somehow "tricked" evolution which is otherwise done with them. Likewise, there's a reason men's heads aren't bitten off after females are done with us.

In a group or tribal context, men and women move from strict child-bearing to child-raising and then to genetic advancement through kinship roles. That is, men are around not only to provide sperm but also to help raise their children, their nieces and nephews and their grandchildren.

In keeping with the original question, I'd add that we probably have far more older people than we need (in this context) but then again we've developed beyond a society where the fitness measure was so highly oriented toward your ability to bear children.
posted by vacapinta at 1:43 PM on August 24, 2004

vacapinta - great comment. So : to modify Faze's brutal observation a bit (though not, perhaps, fundamentally), physical vigor, in the "eyes" of evolutionary logic governing human physiology, is unecessary past the prime reproductive years. After then, we fall apart.

But, why do many of us live so far past that point ? There must be evolutionary - and genetically self interested - utility. Some species expire very soon or even instantly after succesful reproduction. Why not we humans ?

Simple - we're a social species, and the elderly serve - or have served up until now - crucial functions in the transmission of cultural knowledge, in an advisory capacity, and in child care (at least). Further, cousin marriages, throughout most of known human history have been the rule, and so tribal groupings tended to involve, also, a fair degree of genetic relatedness. Hence : the softer, wiser aspects of human sensibility (as the fiercer procreative and Testosteronal pulses ebb - although age can also, at times, provide counsel of the most brutal sort) as expressed through the lens of bitter experience and wielded for the good of the tribal family.


As for mathowie's comments : some of these complaints are due to the decline, at around 35 on average, in the body's release of human growth factors.

For men - in particular - testosterone production tails off but there are many different types of growth hormones that decline, for both sexes, after prime childbearing age.

There are now many nutriceutical and pharmaceutical regimens which can, at least partially, restore levels of some of these hormones and growth factors. Is that always wise? Well, the jury's still out on that one.

Also - periodic, intermittent fasting, it now seems, can stimulate the body's natural release of these substances and so help slow the aging porcess. Caloric restriction does this quite effectively too, but overall caloric restriction - it now seems - is actually unecessary.

The degredation in the fidelity of DNA that leads to, it would seem, an eventual accumulation of deadly blueprint errors cannot so far be stopped, but caloric restriction (and likely faster as well) slows this degradation down considerably.

Other thoughts : I read a book once (sadly out on loan and my age-enfeebled mind is blanking on the author and title), written in the forties or fifties (I seem to recall, feebly), about people of a certain Andean region who commonly lived - if not struck down by the usual childhood mortality factors or by accidents and infections - to well over 100. Many lived and were - more importantly - quite vigorous till the day they died - sometimes into their 13th or 14th decade of life, claimed the author....

These people ate very, very little, worked hard every day of their lives tilling their rocky, hilly plots and - asserts the book - were fortified by the mineral content of the glacial melt water they drank, which flowed down from the mountains.

So said the book - such folk were, in their sixties and seventies, considered in their society and culture to be young.

I'll perhaps be reunited with that book one day. Until then, I take pains to work hard, eat less than many people, and drink either water fortified with mineral extracts (there's a company which does this with Great salt Lake water which has a profile similar to that of seawater) or eat seafood and seaweed, for the similar compliment of trace minerals.

I can vouch for the rejuvenating effects of fasting and - although I've got a few perniciously bad habits - I appear to be aging more slowly, it seems, than my siblings and most in my age cohort - unhealthy habits and all (chiefly alcohol, caffeine, depression, and sloth).

Additionally, there are also a number of esoteric and very widely (even World-wide) and sparsely practiced disciplines, almost always of very ancient lineage, that involve the use of sexual abstinence to increase physical vitality and longetivity and, it is said, spiritual energy as well. Alas, I know of no rigorous clinical trials to cite concerning the empirically measureable aspects of such claims.

Such practices may have underlain the Taoist legends of the "immortals", and sexual abstinence was held - and has been in a number of traditions - as key to either the development and enhancement of spiritual powers or to the actual creation of a coherent "spirit body" that survives the demise of the physcical body and so confers to possibility of immortality that - in certain traditions - is viewed as something which is possible through great effort but not as an inherent human birthright and capacity. (see : "The Secret of the Golden Flower : A Chinese Book of Life", By Karl Jung and Wilhelm Reich)

Gandhi, celibate in the latter half of his life, was devoted to such practices and even took to sleeping in the same bed with young, nubile women to test his "willpower". His wife - whom he likened, in her visage and in other attributes, to a "cow", apparently did not provide a sufficient test of Gandhi's willpower. By all accounts, he kept his hands off the young women and - most certainly - did not attempt to engage with them in sexual acts. Gandhi was also very concerned with bowel movements and would quiz his odd bedmates some mornings, with great and jolly interest, about theirs. The Mahatma was extremely vigorous up to his untimely death.


To get back to the main question - I haven't seen any mention of the impact of antiobiotics in extending human lifespan. Without those I might now have been dead twice over, or one-armed or one-legged.
posted by troutfishing at 3:30 PM on August 24, 2004

That should have been : "caloric restriction (and likely fasting as well) slows this degradation down considerably."
posted by troutfishing at 3:32 PM on August 24, 2004

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