It’s one of the juiciest debates in science.
What can we do to make our average life expectancy jump again? Above, residents of a continuing care retirement community practice chair yoga.
There’s an oddly persistent myth that people have always had a good chance of living to a ripe old age if they could just survive childhood. Socrates was old, after all, and what about Ben Franklin? It’s true that infants and children were once more likely to die than people of any other ages. Eliminating many of the deadly diseases of childhood gave the biggest boost to our average life expectancy as it doubled in the past 150 years. But children aren’t the only ones who are less likely to die than they were in the past. At every age, even older than 100, people are more likely to survive the next year than they were at any other time in human history.
Why has life expectancy continued to go up steadily over the past several decades? And what’s in store for us: Will we continue to live for more and more years than ever before?
Public health measures get the credit for most of the increase in life expectancy that happened from the mid-1800s to mid-1900s. Clean water, safe food, comfortable housing, and a healthy respect for germs made the world a completely different place.
If you look at the top causes of death in the United States in 1900 and 2010, you might think you’re examining data from two entirely different species. In 1900, we died of tuberculosis, gastrointestinal infections, and diphtheria. In 2010, none of those diseases made it into the top 10. Take a tour of this interactive to see how death rates changed over the course of the past century. (The spike in 1918-1919 was caused by the Spanish flu, the worst pandemic in history.) While infectious diseases plummeted over the course of the 20th century, cancer and heart disease shot up.