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Throughout history, how has the average lifespan changed?

In some ways, life expectancy has not changed all that much from 1800 to what it is today. Setting aside infant and child mortality, the average lifespan for women and men of the mid-Victorian era was 73 and 75 respectively. By comparison, in 2021, the average life expectancy for females in the United States was 79 while the average life expectancy for males was 73.

Even when you step back in time, changes in life expectancy were not always as dramatic as one might expect. Depending on which study you refer to, there are records of populations living well into their 50s in ancient Rome and their 60s during the late Renaissance.

Even so, what is indicated in historical records may not reflect what was experienced by the larger population. Many of the same barriers to longevity seen today—including poverty and lack of access to healthcare—were experienced by the masses who lived shorter than their well-to-do peers. Moreover, high rates of child mortality reduced life expectancy far below what is seen today.

This article takes a walk through history to compare life expectancies from ancient times to the 1800s to today. It also discusses some of the health factors that could reverse the gains made in life expectancy in the United States.

Jose Luis Palaez Inc / Getty Images

Lifespan vs. Life Expectancy

Lifespan is a measure of the actual length of an individual’s life. Life expectancy is the average lifespan of an entire population, which can be broken down for statistical purposes into population groups (such as age, sex, race, and income).

Prehistoric Life Expectancy

Until fairly recently, little information existed about how long prehistoric people lived. Having access to too few fossilized human remains has made it difficult for historians to estimate the demographics (statistical characteristics of a population) of any particular group.

In 2006, scientists at Central Michigan University and the University of California, Riverside chose to analyze what is known as the "relative age" of fossilized skeletons found in archeological digs throughout Africa, Europe, and elsewhere.

Relative age is the comparison of one fossil to another fossil to determine which is young or older. Using carbon dating and other techniques, scientists can estimate how long two individuals living in the same time period may have survived.

After comparing the proportion of those who died at a younger age to those who died at an older age, the researcher concluded that longevity only began to significantly increase—past the age of 30 or so—about 30,000 years ago.

In a later article published in Scientific American, the researchers called the shift the “Evolution of Grandparents," marking the first time in human history that three generations might have co-existed.

Ancient Times Through Pre-Industrial Times

Life expectancy estimates for ancient and pre-industrial times also suffer from not only a lack of reliable evidence but also how the evidence is interpreted. This is because life expectancy to many suggests how long a person will live as opposed to how long they can live.

And, this is a misconception given that many people in ancient and pre-industrial times lived just as long (and sometimes longer) than many adults living today.

Early research published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine reported that based on historical records, ancient Greek philosophers and politicians lived an average of 56.2 years (plus or minus 15.5 years). And Italian Renaissance painters lived an average of 62.7 years (plus or minus 17.4 years).

While this clearly reflects what was seen among privileged members of society, it also highlights health disparities that still exist today: The richest males in the United States live 14.6 years longer than the poorest males, and the richest females in the United States 14.6 years longer than the poorest females.

But from the perspective of a population as a whole, life expectancy from about 6,000 BC to 100 BC was low.

In a 2010 article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, evolutionary biologist Caleb Finch describes the average life spans of ancient Greeks and Romans as being between 20 and 35 years. Even so, Finch declared the conclusions “notoriously unrepresentative” given that they were based solely on graveyard epitaphs and samples.

In a later historical analysis, Finch and other evolutionary scientists aimed to estimate the average life span of people living in pre-industrial Sweden using the Gompertz curve. This is a mathematical model utilized by scientists to describe the rate and growth of living things, from bacteria to humans.

By doing so, Finch and his colleagues were able to define "early mortality" and "late mortality" within this population and identify the most causes for both.

According to Finch, the life expectancy in pre-industrial Sweden was around 35 years when factoring in infant deaths and early deaths caused by malnutrition or disease. While there was no barrier to a person living well into their 70s, the likelihood of a newborn reaching 7O was low given the infant mortality rate of 40%. (Today, the infant mortality rate in the United States is 0.54%.)

Based on the analysis of the data, Finch concluded that the risk of early death continued to be high until age 15 (mainly due to injuries and infectious diseases like cholera, tuberculosis, and smallpox). People who survived this period of life could very well make it to old age.

Other infectious diseases would go on to limit longevity during the pre-industrial age, but none on a scale quite as large as the bubonic plague during the 14th century. The Black Plague moved through Asia and Europe, wiping out as much as a third of Europe’s population and temporarily shifting life expectancy downward.

1800s to Today

From the 1500s until around the early-1800s, life expectancy throughout Europe hovered between 30 and 40 years. This was due in part to infant mortality rates that remained at 25% until 1800.

But from the mid-1800s onward, Finch estimated that life expectancy at birth doubled every 10 generations due to improved health care, sanitation, immunizations, access to clean water, and better nutrition.

Even so, diseases like rheumatic fever, typhoid, and scarlet fever still impacted life expectancy during the 1800s and early-1900s. But as science progressed and newly created vaccines offered protection against many of these and other illnesses, life expectancy began to rapidly increase.

An example of this was offered by Scottish researcher T.H. Hollingworth who described the life expectancy of women at age 15 from pre-industrial times to modern times:

Year Life
1480–1679 48.2
1680–1779 56.6
1780-1879 64.6
1891 61.6
1901 62.6
1911 66.4
1921 68.1
1951 73.4
1961 75.7
1971 76.8
1981 78.0
1989 79.2

Today most industrialized countries boast life expectancy figures of more than 75 years, according to data compiled by the Central Intelligence Agency.

Today and the Future

Hover, the life expectancy path is always upward. In the same way that the Black Plague reversed life expectancy gains during the 14th century, pandemic diseases like COVID-19 have done the same in the 20th century. Other factors like drug overdose, suicide, homicide, and heart disease have also had an impact.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), life expectancy in the United States declined two years in a row from 79 years in 2019 to 77 years in 2020 to 76.1 years in 2021. It was the biggest two-year decline in life expectancy since the years 1921 to 1923.

The decline was largely driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, which accounted for 74% of the decline from 2019 to 2020 and 50% of the decline from 2020 to 2021.

Other researchers predict that lifestyle factors like obesity may halt or even reverse the rise in life expectancy.

Epidemiologist S. Jay Olshanky warns that in the United States—where two-thirds of the population is overweight or obese—complications like heart disease and type 2 diabetes could very well reverse gains made in the first half of the 21st century.

At the same time, rising life expectancy in developed countries like the United States may bring both good and bad news. In short, by living longer, people are at greater risk of dying from aging-related illnesses like coronary artery disease, certain cancers, and Alzheimer's disease. Until cures are found, these conditions could very well create a "glass ceiling" for how long a person can possibly live.

Even, many of these aging-related conditions can be prevented or delayed through lifestyle choices such as maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, managing stress, and eating a healthy diet (such as the Mediterranean diet and anti-aging diet).


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