Myth # 77: Everyone died young.

This week we are fortunate to have a guest blogger, Katie Cannon, to debunk one of her pet-peeve myths. Katie has more than a dozen years of experience working in history museums, and has just completed a Master of Arts in Museum Studies through the University of Leicester. She is especially fond of living history, she says, having never quite grown out of playing dress-up.

You hear this one all over the place: “Everyone died young back in the old days,” or “You were lucky if you lived to age 40,” and so forth.

You can crunch some numbers and certainly come to this conclusion, but the big problem with this is infant mortality.  If you include the (generally high) infant mortality rate of early America, life expectancy plummets. However, if you calculate life expectancy past infancy and childhood, people in historic periods could expect to live to ages not that different from today.

In Massachusetts in 1850, an infant at birth could expect to live 38-40 years. Pretty bleak, right? But, if that same infant survived to age 20, he could expect to live another 40 years, to age 60. Quite an improvement! Compare that to the Center for Disease Control statistics for 1998, in which a person’s life expectancy at birth was 76, and at age 20 was 77, hardly any difference because we’ve managed to sharply decrease mortality in infants and children.  And remember, “life expectancy” does not mean everyone suddenly drops dead at that age. There are plenty of people today who live past 77, just as there were plenty in 1850 who lived past 60.

Here, for example, are the ages at death of the first 10 presidents of the United States, from oldest to youngest: 90, 85, 83, 80, 79, 78, 73, 71, 68, 67.  Most of them were older than the life expectancy in 1998!  And, since those are all men, here are the ages of their wives at death (John Tyler married twice, so there are 11 women accounted for): 89, 81, 77, 74, 71, 69, 62, 61, 52, 36, 34.  Almost half made it into their seventies at least; of those under 70, five died from disease (including 2 strokes) and one from the complications of childbirth.  True, in general they were not as long-lived as their husbands, but it’s still a far cry from the bleak “dead-at-forty” report you may have heard.  

The big killer, as you may have noticed, was disease. The age of antibiotics changed many things, and today far more infants are expected to reach adulthood, so the average life expectancy has indeed gone up. But, old folks were not an endangered species in early America! 

U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States.


6 Responses to Myth # 77: Everyone died young.

  1. Dori says:

    Thank you for busting this myth!!! Another interesting thing to investigate (which would be harder) would be pregnancies vs. live births. We live in a world today where we expect every pregnancy to go to term and every baby born will grow up. That is of course not the reality, but it is the expectation. One wonders what the expectations of people in the past might have been.

  2. Joanna says:

    Thanks so much for addressing this myth! It is one of my pet peeves as well. I, too, would love to know the answer to Dori’s question, but in an era where a diary entry was something like “Retired to bed early. Baby born at noon” and you never knew she was pregnant, it would be hard to figure that out LOL!

  3. Deborah Brower says:

    This one makes me crazy too. I tell people take a walk through an old cemetery and look at the dates on the stones. You find plenty of people who lived a long time.

    Katie made the point very well, it is infant mortality that pulls down the statistics. Over all the two myths I hear most often are that people died young and they were shorter.

  4. marymiley says:

    The People-Were-Shorter myth is #8. Yes, those two are pretty common, aren’t they?

  5. I like to use presidents to counter this sort of nonsense, since at least the stus know who they are. Thomas Jefferson, GIANT and lived to be 83. Of course John Adams, who died the same day, lived to be 91, although he was short!

  6. R Fuller says:

    Some people love these myths and cleave to them like truths, since they give many the feeling that, no matter how bad things are in our lives today, they’re still better than things were “back in the Olden Days.” Such myths of suffering and self-denial also make our forebears into mythical beings, larger than life. “Only they could have withstood frontier life!”

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