Revisited Myth # 77: Everyone died young in those days.


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 recently 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.


9 Responses to Revisited Myth # 77: Everyone died young in those days.

  1. Tammy Higgs says:

    First, I love these – they really help when we get questions about the mytheries of history! Mrs. Elizabeth Collins Lee, wife of Richard Bland Lee of Sully in Chantilly, VA lived to be 90 years old! I always hear people say, “wow, that was old back then.” I think it is old today and hope I can live to be that age. This debunker helps in so many ways. Thank you.

  2. jelongva says:

    Good observation, the understanding of statistical descriptives is very poor. The “average” gets skewed by infant mortality and the masses misread the result. The misreading of statistics is why 65 was made the retirement age in 1870. I’m not sure the family tree data is perfect, but there are a lot of geezers on the upper branches.

  3. Barbara Fitzgerald says:

    Thanks, I have lots of relatives that lived into their seventy’s and some into the 80’s. So I would agree with your numbers from back then and when you look at folks like Jefferson or Ben Franklin, I always questioned why someone would say that they did not live that long. Barbara Date: Fri, 11 Mar 2016 22:00:44 +0000 To:

  4. JJ Cummings says:

    Let’s make this simple. To say that people did not die early is to say the medical community has made no contributions to life expectancy. There are over a thousand conditions like Appendicitis with a ruptured appendix that would kill someone in the past. Today we conduct surgery. Over 200 thousand a yet have Appendicitis in the U.S alone. Simple common sense when it comes to the immense contributions of medicine.

    • Cassidy says:

      That seems like a slightly odd way to look at it – if you say that some people today do die early (because they do), does that mean you’re accusing the medical community of being useless?

      Katie Cannon didn’t say that “people did not die early”. She said that statistically, they did not die much earlier than today.

      • JJ Cummings says:

        Statistically, Med school continues to teach that without the contributions of medical advancement, the many individuals died much younger on average.

      • Cassidy says:

        Many individuals did, but the point of the post is that infant/child mortality rates skew the average. When you account for that, it’s clear that most people who lived to adulthood could expect to live nearly as long as we do.

  5. jelongva says:

    Most of the increase in longevity probably results from engineering advances, the better roads, cleaner, treated water, and sewage systems reduced many diseases. Early childhood diseases that used to be fatal are now prevented, which is a plus on medicine’s column but drop in many death dealing events comes from technology (cars don’t pollute nearly as badly as horses and do not contribute to tetanus infections). One of the greatest contributors to children surviving was the concept of doctor’s washing their hands and not going from the dissection lab to the obstetrics ward.
    Changes in military tactics also have extended life (Napoleonic charges stopped with the invention of rapid fire) .
    It might be interesting to compare mean life expectancy with the median age of death and the modal death age.

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