How Did We Get To Live So Long?

Chances are, you probably know that people today live longer than those who lived 300 years ago. But did you know how quickly, and how recently, that number rose? The average lifespan doubled between the years of 1920 to 2020—from just over 40 years old in 1920 to over 80 years old in 2020. 

The reasons why, we are taught, are advances in nutrition and in science, specifically chemistry and biology. But as we’ve seen these past 15 months or so (and longer than that, if we’re being honest), a scientific breakthrough often isn’t enough to make a meaningful impact to society at large. There were a lot of moving pieces, on a lot of different fronts, that allowed our lifespan to double.

The New York Times Magazine had a great piece this past week—an excerpt from a book written by Steven Johnson which you can read here—on key factors in this global doubling. It’s a lengthy article coming in at over 10,000 words, and you can read it here, but there are a few larger themes that can be summarized quickly. Namely:

  1. The average lifespan skyrocketed moreso due to fewer children dying before they reached adulthood than it did from people living longer lives. Fewer than 60 of every 100 children in New York used to survive into adulthood. Now 99 of them do.
  2. It wasn’t so much a scientific breakthrough that led to increased average lifespans, but widespread lobbying efforts that got those breakthroughs implemented at large. For example, Louis Pasteur is the founding father of germ theory and, by 1865, he had perfected the process of killing harmful bacteria in food (which we now call “pasteurization”) at an industrial scale. But for that discovery to make any difference in the day-to-day lives of people, it took another 50 years and a massive public relations campaign by private actors to get the governments to outlaw unpasteurized milk and for dairies to comply. Using chlorine to decontaminate drinking water took a similar public relations effort. Early chlorinators were even arrested.
  3. Human effort has typically played a larger role than the underlying scientific breakthroughs in improving the average lifespan across the globe, especially in poorer, less-medically advanced countries with high population densities like those in Asia and Africa. The smallpox vaccine was the first vaccine ever developed—by Edward Jenner in May of 1796. The eradication of smallpox was a goal of Thomas Jefferson’s presidential administration, and the vaccine was widely available around the world by the early 1800s. But the disease was not officially eradicated until the late 1970s, and that only happened through the effort, the distribution plans, and the improvisations and improvement of existing vaccination practices by the World Health Organization and its field workers.

It’s an interesting, albeit long, read. And given our recent first-hand witnessing of a pandemic enveloping the world and a vaccine response being developed, tested, and distributed in real time… it’s an important read.

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