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.
I’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.
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.
I’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!