Friday, May 1, 2009

Were Early Americans Really Living Shorter Lives?

This is Part 2 in a series adapted from my paper, "Modern Health, Primitive Wisdom: American Health History and the Findings of Weston A. Price."

Looking deeper into the life expectancy statistics that are used to gauge our country's health status, one quickly finds that it is not a simple black-and-white procedure. Many factors create discrepancies in the data. One prime example is the role that infant mortality rate plays in determining life expectancy data. As the mortality numbers of the overall population are added up, every infant death contributes a "0" to the tally, significantly impacting the final average. Below is a graphic representation of the result of this phenomenon. (blue = infant mortality; yellow = average lifespan.)

In the above figure, we see that infant mortality rates in 1900 are quite high at 14 %. Correspondingly, average life expectancy of newborns in 1900 is very low at 47.6 years. In 1992, with infant deaths (along with infectious disease, undernourishment, and death from injury) being largely controlled by medical technological advancements, the infant mortality rate drops drastically to less than 1%. For that year, we find that life expectancy has risen by nearly 30 years compared to data from the year 1900.

It is also important to note that the data for life expectancy in the above figure is only representative of the number of years a newborn infant is expected to live. In other words, at age "0" a white person in 1900 is expected to live up to 48 years; in sharp contrast, a white person born (age "0") in 1992 is expected to nearly 77-years-old. However, if the 1900 person escapes infectious disease, injury, miscarriage, and undernourishment and manages to reach 40-years-old and beyond, the numbers shift significantly (blue = 40+ life expectancy in 1900; yellow = 40+ life expectancy in 1992):

Here we see that if a white American in 1900 reaches age 40, he/she can expect to live 28 years longer (age 68). A white American in 1992 is expected to live 39 years longer (age 79). This is a difference of 11 years. Furthermore, if the 1900 person should live to age 80, he/she is expected to reach age 85. If the 1992 man lives to 80 years, he can expect to see age 87. This is a difference of 2 years. Thus, it can be seen in the above figure that as the age of the individual increases, the gap between the life expectancy data of 1900 and 1992 diminishes. Returning to the first figure, which is based on newborn (age 0) life expectancies, we find a much larger gap in the data -- a difference of nearly 30 years.

Once again, we must remind ourselves of the many changing factors over the century that play an important role in interpreting this data: better hygiene, control of infectious disease, increased food supply, and improved infant outcome. Such influential factors must be taken into consideration when using lifespan data to analyze the health of the United States population throughout the century.

American Food Habits in Historical Perspective (McIntosh 1995, 219-220)

National Vital Statistics Reports (Department of Health and Human Services, National Center for Health Statistics 2006)

Next Post, Part 3: "Big, Fat Changes in American Foods."


chlOe said...

Weren't different diseases higher, though, like you had pointed out in your last post? I wouldn't say we have better control over disease - I mean; people are just able to be kept sicker longer through technology and drugs. And different ones skyrocketed to the point where they seem out of control (like the growing obesity rate).
Like, just cause someone may make it to 70 doesn't mean they're healthy per se - they're just being kept alive. That's one of the reasons why I think we're overpopulated now.
I mean Is pumping out more children saved by drugs necessarily a good thing? Sounds harsh (especially to myself, because, well, I was saved by antibiotics when I was 0 haha), but, laws of nature kind of get screwed in this situation as natural selection can't fully work out quite well.

Jake of Flagstaff said...

Great article, I deal with this semi often when talking discussing the Paleo Diet, thank you for adding some artillery to the argument.
Paleo Aborigines and Ethiopians have been well know to have the ability to live till 120, with limited exceptions, after reaching the 40 year old marker - but we consider 90 year olds ancient!
I wonder if we have been shielded for too long, thus been wimpified with the next generation inheriting it? Are we are under the shroud of sterilized nature? The Aborigines are well known for doing amazing endurance challenges some of the more brutal are the following: helping prepare a three day festival without food and little to no water, and slowly dislodging a tooth with a pick and hammer without flinching. Australia was once the most arid, dry, and sequestered place in the world yet they could perform amazing fetes and have a greater lifespan after the 40 year marker!
These new epidemic serialization and nature separation is really what is killing us; let the Bird and Swine Flu’s fill us let the plagues and genetic disease try to consume us. If we are conditioned the diseases don’t have a chance. But if you eat breads and pastas with your chemo, and anti-viral medication your just making it worse.

May you Grok in Fullness

Ryan Koch said...

Chloe said: "Weren't different diseases higher, though, like you had pointed out in your last post? I wouldn't say we have better control over disease - I mean; people are just able to be kept sicker longer through technology and drugs."

That's a very important point that I often bring up in my presentations on primitive nutrition. We've advanced technologically -- and maybe that's advanced our lifespan (debatable) -- but our quality of life is diminished, particularly the last few decades of it. We've mainly gained control over infectious diseases that were prevalent 100 years ago like pneumonia and tuberculosis, but AIDS and cancer are a whole new ball game.

Nowadays we're so weak that the typical person can't even produce a proper set of teeth and nice round noggin, yet most of us stay alive into our 70s and 80s thanks to modern technology.

Thanks for bringing that up!

Mr. Jake of Flag wrote: "Paleo Aborigines and Ethiopians have been well know to have the ability to live till 120, with limited exceptions, after reaching the 40 year old marker - but we consider 90 year olds ancient!"

I've heard similar anecdotal stuff from native peoples I've met along the way. One thing you have to remember is that ancient cultures kept track of age differently than we do today. For example, the Hunzakats, who supposedly lived into their 120s and beyond, seemed to have miscommunicated their ages due to cultural differences -- the civilized world's interpretation of the ages was apparently exaggerated. The numbers had more to do with prestige and wisdom. A dude who was 50 might claim to be 120 in order to display his great wisdom. A bigger number would mean more wisdom. So you can see how some guys claimed to be 200 years old!

A little ego-inflating bragging is quite common in primitive cultures. Many saw themselves as superior to civilized man. All called themselves "the people," implying that other tribes weren't the chosen, the true, the special ones.

The oldest documented person lived to be 122 years old, so it is possible, but it definitely isn't the norm. It seems that we humans are more commonly meant to live to 70 or 80 if nothing cuts that short -- that goes for modern and paleo folks dying a natural death.

The current oldest person (115 years), Gertrude Baines, apparently eats a diet of bacon and eggs!

Hope you're well, buddy! :-)

Stephan said...


Very nice follow-up to your previous post. I'm going to be putting up a post soon on the history of CHD over the last century. I got my hands on some old papers that went over autopsy data from London hospitals. Here's a preview: heart attack deaths were rare in 1900, and they increased dramatically through the 1950s. It all began in the 1920s, right when cigarettes and hydrogenated oils hit the market...

Ryan Koch said...


Sounds awesome! I look forward to checking it out.

Re: Lifespan ... I always thought that it would be neat to analyze gravestones from past centuries to evaluate life expectancy -- not really scientific, but would be interesting nonetheless. Maybe I'll check out the local graveyard of the tiny town (population 200) that I live in and write up a post on my "findings."

Dana Seilhan said...

No, we haven't really conquered tuberculosis. It's making a comeback, and the comeback looks to be drug-resistant.

Interestingly, Price documented that his "primitives" rarely, if ever, contracted the disease despite having occasional contact with traders from infected populations. The disease is supposed to be virulent and highly infectious, so it wouldn't have taken much to spread it.

Pasteur didn't have the whole story. It does take a specific germ to start an infectious disease, but the body's got to be receptive to it also.

The United States infant mortality rate is nothing to crow about either. Check this out.

For the sake of balance, if you swing this way, here's another writer's take on it:

I am unclear as to how being unmarried results in lower birth weight, but never mind. I suppose I should be grateful that my "bastard" daughter only weighed in at nine pounds, and keep in mind that remaining unmarried will prevent a fifteen-pound baby in the future. *shrug* Not that this guy really explains what's going on other than implying that letting the government foot the health-care bill will cause worse problems. (Of course, he never invokes infant mortality rates in U.S. military families to bolster his claim. Odd.)

I think it'll come out in the end that we have all these problems because of bad eating. I'd be willing to bet serious money I don't have that the Hispanics/Latinas with the lowest premature birth rate are the ones still eating their traditional diets. Even African-Americans in the cities eat more industrial food now than fifty years ago.

Ryan Koch said...


Re: Pastuer ... I'm more of a Bechamp fan myself. :-)

Thanks for the comment. Interesting stuff!