Life expectancy in the U.S. in 1900 was 49 years. By 2000 it had increased to 78 years. That’s obviously good news, but it’s even better than you might realize.
Our sixty percent increase in longevity is primarily the result of a dramatic decrease in premature deaths, especially a decrease in childhood deaths. It isn’t because everyone in 1900 died upon reaching 47 and everyone is now dying when he or she reaches 78.
When my daughter was eight years old she developed appendicitis, a very common ailment. At 2AM my wife took her to the emergency room and within two hours she had had an appendectomy. In about two weeks she was good as new.
Up until about a hundred years ago appendicitis was fatal in almost every instance. What happened to Harry Houdini in 1926 was the usual outcome of appendicitis without surgery. His appendix ruptured, he developed peritonitis, and died at the age of 52.
What is now a routine and very treatable health issue was essentially a death sentence. Can you imagine how much grief resulted from that one common ailment? The fact that we now have the ability to prevent or minimize that kind of tragedy and suffering is a blessing of modern life that is often taken for granted.
Of course, we still are unable to assure that all children live to adulthood and then to a ripe old age. Nevertheless, the strides we have made are profoundly significant.
When we see a news report of a child or young adult dying for whatever reason it pains our hearts to think about his or her parents, friends, and other relatives. There is no pain as deep and long-lasting as the pain of loss. Although the grief resulting from premature death is still a fact of life, it is far less common than it was for our ancestors.
If you know details of your family tree even a few generations back you’ve probably seen instances of your forefathers having, for example, eight children with only five surviving to adulthood. Having to bury three of your children had to have been incredibly painful. Unfortunately, it was relatively common. Our ancestors must have been made of sterner stuff than I am.
The leading causes of death in 1900 were pneumonia, tuberculosis, and diarrhea. None of those are today even in the top ten leading causes of death.
The life expectancy increase is not only because of medical progress. For example, the number of non-vehicular accidental deaths (per 100,000 population) declined more than 75 percent between 1900 and 2000. Since 1940 auto fatalities per vehicle mile have decreased more than 85 percent.
We are incredibly fortunate to be living when we are. The benefits of modern living go far beyond high-definition TVs and smart phones. (Although those are pretty cool.) The kinds of events that cause the worst human suffering have been dramatically reduced. We have much to be thankful for. Happy Thanksgiving!
◼ Another Reason for Giving Thanks November 23, 2011
Ron Ross Ph.D. is a former economics professor and author of The Unbeatable Market. Ron resides in Arcata, California and is a founder of Premier Financial Group, a wealth management firm located in Eureka, California. He is a native of Tulsa, Oklahoma and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.