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What Was Humanity’s Life Expectancy for Most of History?

For most of history, human life expectancy was remarkably low, hovering around 30-40 years. This was due to high infant mortality rates and the prevalence of diseases without modern medicine. However, those who survived childhood had a chance to live longer. Intrigued? Discover how historical life expectancy shapes our understanding of human longevity today. What factors have allowed us to live longer?

Scientists find it difficult to determine the life expectancy of early human beings. There’s just not enough information available about how people lived – from prehistoric man through the Middle Ages and beyond – and there are too few fossilized remains to make accurate estimates, though hypotheses have often centered around 35 years. As demographic data became more available, scientists are now confident in saying that from the 1500s until about 1800, life expectancy throughout Europe was about 30 to 40 years of age. Although many people lived for decades longer, high rates of infant and childhood mortality lowered the average significantly.

These days, in most industrialized nations, life expectancy has virtually doubled, to more than 75 years. In a 2010 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, gerontologist and evolutionary biologist Caleb Finch stated that life expectancy doubled in a period of about 10 generations due to better health care, sanitation, immunization, access to clean water and better nutrition.

A longer lease on life:

  • Perhaps surprisingly, doctors only began washing their hands before surgery in the mid-1800s, coinciding with a better understanding of hygiene and the transmission of microbes.

  • Some researchers fear that widespread public health challenges such as obesity will reverse the rise in life expectancy for the first time in modern history. In the United States, two-thirds of the population is overweight or obese.

  • The increase in life expectancy has brought a slew of challenges. We may be living longer, but we’re also encountering different types of illnesses as we get older, including coronary artery disease, certain cancers, diabetes, and dementia.

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