Are We Healthier Now Than 100 Years Ago?

So you know me. I’m a History apologist. I happen to believe that life back in the day wasn’t as bad as some (*cough* ignorant and uneducated *cough*) people like to say it was. Sure, we didn’t have TV or the Internet, antibiotics or chemotherapy a hundred years ago. Electricity and automobiles were brand new back then. But what was life like? More importantly, was life worse or better?

Well, every once in a while I get a bee in my bonnet and start looking things up. One bee that has been in my bonnet for years is the issue of health. Specifically, are people healthier now than they were a hundred years ago? My long-held belief is that no, people are not healthier now. We just live longer. But that’s not the same thing.

But am I right?

Okay, a little backstory.

Children and nurse 1900I’ve been on this kick for the last year or so of trying not to eat processed foods. It’s been a slow evolution, but as time goes by I’ve been weaning myself off of anything that comes in a frozen package or premade with ingredients that I wouldn’t be able to identify if they were lying out on a table in front of me. I’ve started doing things like making my own bread and pesto and trying (sometimes in vain) to eat less sugar.

But I’ve noticed something else in the process of spending ten minutes kneading bread dough or hand-washing my unmentionables. It takes muscle! And I am a wimp. I sit in my cube all day at work and in front of my computer writing all night. Yes, there have been times when I have gotten winded carrying a box to my car or going on a long (mile) walk. I’ve gained about 20 pounds since I turned 35, and I can’t blame all of it on age and hormones.

I come from a pretty darn healthy family. We don’t get sick very often (although I have a cold as I write this). The women on both sides of my family tend to live into their 90s, whereas the men on both sides tend to have problems with heart disease and say goodbye in their early 70s. But my Mom died of breast cancer at age 57 (no other family history of breast cancer) and my half-brother passed away very suddenly of lung cancer at age 41 less than a year ago. The suspicion is that Mom’s cancer was caused by stress and my brother’s by toxins where he worked.

Okay, that’s all well and good, but what about the health of the whole rest of the world? Are we healthier now, in 2013, than we were in, say 1910? This is where my curiosity and subsequent digging revealed some interesting information.

I went online to the CDC website where they have mortality records going back to the 1890s and looked up the top ten leading causes of death for the past hundred years. What I found was fascinating. Here it is.

Causes of Death 1910-2010

Whoa! Did you notice what I noticed? A hundred years later, we’re still dying of more or less the same things! Sure, we’ve cured TB and the introduction of antibiotics has wiped Diarrhea, Enteritis, & Ulceration of the Intestines off the list. But look how Diabetes snuck on there. And Suicide? Suicide! It’s a modern menace!

And before you start to argue numbers and percentages, stop right there. The ratio of cause of death to population is roughly the same then as it is now. No, more people did not die more frequently of the things on the list for 1910. And look, Infant Mortality is still on the list in 1960. I kind of always thought of the 60s as part of the modern era. And Cancer, something I hear a lot of people bandying about as only being so prevalent now because nothing else kills people first, is still there on the list in 1910.

old coupleI’ll give you this though, the average life expectancy has gone up. We may be dying of the same things, but in 1910 we were dying younger. Or perhaps you could say that in 2013 we live with these causes of death longer. In 2013 the average life expectancy (of someone in the western world) is 77.5 – 80 years. On the surface it looks like life expectancy in 1910 was 47-51 years, but as this neat website points out, those figures are misleading and that 11.4% of the population of the US in 1910 was over age 65.  Kind of looks like a net gain of 5-10 years of life in the last 100 years.

So yes, people live longer now, but do we live better? Modern medicine is able to keep people alive, but what kind of life is it? Obesity is at an all-time high. Diabetes keeps creeping higher up the list. Suicide made the top ten as all of our medical and social advances marched to the fore. Is this better?

One of the articles I read in prep to write this included a lengthy comments section (that I had to stop reading because it made me too angry). One commenter was fiercely adamant about how much better life is today, saying that if we want to look at what life used to be like all we need to do is go to a third-world country. But guess what, buddy? It doesn’t work like that.

The political, economic, and agricultural problems of third-world countries in the 21st century are in no way, shape, or form living demonstrations of a less advanced and therefore historically accurate setting. They are the result of political, economic, and agricultural problems in the 21st century. The United States in 1910 did not look or feel like Nigeria in 2013. Far from it. In fact, I think most people in 2013 radically underestimate the technology and infrastructure that did exist in 1910, or in the 19th century, for that matter.

In fact, I think I’ll make that my next research project: to look up technology and innovations that existed long before you thought they did. Stay tuned for more!


15 thoughts on “Are We Healthier Now Than 100 Years Ago?

  1. Yup! In a way, not much has changed except medicine’s ability to extend life with illnesses. But they also ate better than we do today, did more physically, etc. Face it, if we tried to walk out and start farming, most of us would be passed out and asleep before the sun came up. (I know this because my uncle IS a farmer and I tried to help one summer LOL)

    • You’re exactly right, TJ. I also think we’re physically weaker than we were 100 years ago simply because of the “ease of living” today. I once read an article about just how much weaker we’ve become. Wish I remember where that was and knew how to find it again!

  2. Very interesting. My grandpa died a few weeks shy of 103 and he ate bacon, eggs and fried taters every day. But he was a farmer, so he probably kept his pipes blown out 🙂

  3. I think we can be healthier now although we often aren’t. Foods were always adulterated and often not as healthy as frozen foods today because of shipping times, we have options and leisure we didn’t have then (most of us), there were social tabus against smoking and drinking for women, which much have helped at least half of us. But the lack of antibiotics, technologically sophisticated dental care, and simple understanding of the body’s workings must have made a lot of life more painful (literally). And treatments for, say, TB consisted of spending one’s life more or less in jail, in sanatariums for months and years at a time, more to keep you from spreading your private plague to others.

    • Oooo! Gail, I think you hit exactly on the point that I was going for but didn’t know I was going for. We have the ability and knowledge of how to be healthier these days, but we choose not to. I think that’s what irritates me so much about the modern world. We’ve come so far, but we deliberately hold ourselves back because it’s easier or more convenient. Thanks!

      Although I might have to argue with you on the dental point. I read a compelling article once that talked about how archeological evidence shows that before sugar became a predominant part of our diets and back when we ate coarser grains, people had better teeth. I seem to recall that a lot of the evidence showing this came from excavations of cemetaries from many hundreds of years ago which revealed skull after skull with healthy teeth. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do more research into.

  4. Very interesting post, Merry. I could talk for days about health today VS in the past, longevity in the past, GMO’s, sugar, wheat, sitting in houses and offices all day, watching TV at night, etc. You got me going, Merry. 🙂

    • I know! It’s like Gail’s comment above your says: We have the ability and the knowledge to live healthier lives, but we choose to engage in all these unhealthy behaviors. *sigh* Will we ever learn?

  5. I particularly like the point about not equating challenged places today with historical scenarios.

    I have been kicking around a blog idea for awhile about modern medical care versus medicine throughout history. My own zany take though…maybe I should link to this essay when I publish.

    • I think one of my commenters said it best when they said that in today’s world we have the potential to be healthier, but we choose not to be. Convenience trumps health. Although I also think there’s a lot of benefit in holistic medicine. Heck, eating papaya and turmeric fixed my back pain (they’re natural anti-inflammatories) and slamming garlic shortened my head cold last week to about 5 days.

      And you can refer to me in your article, I won’t mind. 😉

  6. I am writing a paper on GM foods, how the FDA and USDA keep approving them to continue on because they do not appear to cause any health issues. As we were discussing this in my class, I was astonished to find out I had fellow classmates that thought life is better today than 100 years ago BECAUSE of GM foods. I pointed out that just because we live longer, does not mean we are healthier. In addition, most of the people that live longer, lead active lifestyles and eat healthy food. I think a lot of people choose to turn their head the other way because it is too hard to change their diet and everyday routine. For these, among many other reasons, is why the FDA, USDA and our Government, is signing bills and approving poisonous chemicals and antibiotics, to be put into our food. It is because of people that think it makes no difference and that GM food is the future. They think that cheaper food is better, organic is too expensive. They obviously have not priced out how much it costs to be sick, to fight cancer, or any other illness, which is caused by their choices in foods and medicines they let into their bodies, willingly.

    • I’m so glad that people are studying this in school and that there’s at least a debate about it! And you’re right, people pick the unhealthier options, the options that are ultimately killing them, because they’re easier right now. But working a little harder to prepare good foods and to be active is a lot easier than fighting cancer or diabetes later!


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