The Truth About Lifespan, Centenarians and History
The Truth About Lifespan, Centenarians and History

One question I sometimes get goes something like this: "If modern man is so unhealthy, how comes his lifespan continues to expand? Don't we live twice as long as we used to?"

Short Answer: Well, no actually! 

Long Answer: One of the most pervasive myths in our society revolves around the subject of age and lifespan. Thankfully much of the quandary can be put to rest by a correct interpretation of the statistics. The principle problem in our correctly perceiving life expectancy data is the inclusion of infant mortality, that is to say, the passing of a child 1 year or younger is averaged into the data.

Acadamics, journalists and news reporters of all persuasions are often caught making a big booboo of the life expectancy data. They may claim (albeit in a jovial fashion) that luckily they live where they live, for had they been born in the African nations of Lesotho or Chad (for example), they'd probably be dead by now (or before their 55th birthday). Of course when we actually visit Lesotho or Chad, people are not dying in their droves at 54, and that is evident because there is no shortage of 70 and 80 year olds, and both countries have had their share of centenarians too.

What can be said with certainty, however, is that both Chad and Lesotho have some of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. So whether a baby dies in childbirth, via cot death, vaccine reaction or by early infection, that all-to-brief lifespan is registered. Of course, if a mother carries two children, one who lives to 86, the other who dies at birth, It is really rather misleading to take the average of 43 years and propose that would be the expected lifespan of a child born into that family.

The same understanding applies equally to the past as well. Mainstream consensus often gives the impression that those born in Victorian times and prior had brute, short lives. During the 1830s in USA, around 400 babies in every 1000 born, did not make their fifth birthday. For the UK that same number was around the 330 mark. In either case, we have an incredibly high infant mortality rate, which produced low, albeit, heavily skewed life expectancy data for the time period. Even in 1907 the expected life span of an American gentleman was stated as being barely 45. But, when we look at the data we can see that an entire 10% of the population at that time perished before the age of twelve months, once again, heavily skewing the common interpretation. 50 years later the average life expectancy in America rose to 66.5, while the infant mortality rate had dramatically dropped to only 2.6 percent, and 50 years later again, in 2007, when the lifespan was alleged to be 75.5, the infant mortality rate had now fallen all the way down to 0.7%.

You see, if you normalise the data so that the lifespan is not skewed by infant mortality rates, the new figures show a startling degree of constancy for average human lifespans going back, not just for the last 150 years, but for a large chunk of the last 1000 years as well. Of course, within the drama of this tumultuous time frame, allowances for social effects: war, plague and pestilence, social upheavals and starvation, particularly those that decimated big population centres, must clearly be accounted for. Nonetheless, it truly is a monumental error to deduce that the lives of yesteryear or ancient peoples were brutish and short.

It should be no surprise then, that in older human societies, people in their "Autumn" and "Winter" years, were always abundantly present. Furthermore, it is hilarious to think that centenarianism is somehow a recent "invention". You know, our biological capacity to live long lives has not changed over the last 2000 years. In fact, some scholars estimate that the percentile of those that made it to 100 years or greater in "civilised" ancient societies, were likely in line (and often greater than) the per capita ratios we are hitting in modern Europe today. Part of the reason for this is that there are a series of age demographics that if one lives thru and beyond, one's chances of continued life activity is said to actually increase, not decrease, compared to younger demographics, the 80-85 age bracket, say. One of these auspicious thresholds occurs, just around the 100 mark.

As expected, when we dig into some of the often cited centenarians of the past, ancient historical records are intrinsically biased towards "elite” or "historically important" "Western" figures such as Narcissus of Jerusalem or Galeria Copiola, but there is simply no reason to assume that there have not always been long-lived people, across all "social classes", dispersed broadly in both hemispheres, much as we see in the so-called Blue Zones of today, and probably in much greater concentrations than we ever imagined. The notion that life was brutish and short before 1910 paints a reinforcing theme for the legitimacy and prestige of any modern technocratic society, but one that, for the most part, is statistically and historically unfounded.

In addition to all of the above, there is also copious evidence suggesting that people lived much longer that the “identified” super-centenarians of today (a modern word that, somewhat arbitrarily denotes a person who is 110 years or older). Indeed, most people do not realise that the longest known life expectancies mentioned in volumes like the Guinness Book of Records, used to cite more advanced ages than the 122 years of the so-called "modern era", ascribed to a one Jeanne Calment of Provence, France, cited in the recent volumes, (which behind the scenes, I might add, is highly contested). But, as requirements for age-validating  paperwork increased, the longest-lived historical records declined in years, and only a tiny slither of elders worldwide were granted access into "the longest-lived" league tables, principally because so few countries reliably produced birth certificates and other documentation before the 1850s. Without these venerated paper tokens, absence of evidence became evidence of absence. As a result, the tens of thousands of long-lived human outliers, highlighted for their unusually advanced years, celebrated in newspapers, and biographies, both local and international, from Kosovo, to China, Costa Rica to Azerbaijan, India to Ethiopia, and everywhere in between, languished as mere historical "curiosities", albeit, providing a treasure trove of often very compelling evidence for a number of very long-lived humans all across our realm, all throughout time. 

Kyle Vialli (2023)

Artwork (at top) : "Tänzer im Tempel", by Victor Lage (1888). 

Kyle Author