Life expectancy of 13? That’s Victorian values for you.

Several hundred people in the UK have died from swine flu since May 2009. As a historical note, this text from 1942 puts our modern health problems in some perspective.

In the England of 1840 the average age of death was twenty-nine, today [1942] it is fifty-eight. …the babies of 1840 suffered an appalling mortality. To-day one child in seventeen dies before it is a year old, but in 1840 the figure was about one in six, and about a third of the children born died before the age of five….Infants died of convulsions, diarroea, and atrophy, the latter being a polite term for starvation.

The fact that in 1937 some twenty-six thousand English people died of tuberculosis will no doubt seem appalling to our descendants [yes, it does], but only a small minority of the people of to-day, whether through ignorance or indifference, allow themselves to be troubled by it, especially as the position has long been steadily improving. The attitude of the men of 1840 was similar. The general death-rate did not seem at all shocking, for it was probably better than it had ever been.

In the undrained slum areas of some industrial towns the average age of death was thirteen.

The death rate in 1840 England was 23 per 1,000. In the early 18th century it’s estimated that the death rate was 80 per 1,000. To put that in context, Sierra Leone currently has the worst death rate in the world: 22.1 per 1,000. The past truly is a foreign country.

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8 Comments

  • Andrew Suffield 31st Jan '10 - 12:07pm

    We’re not doing so great on infant mortality rate. That’s still about 1 in 6 in Sierra Leone.

    (1 in 200 here, which works out to around 3500 dead babies last year, mostly from nothing in particular – just too early, or not strong enough to survive, so we can’t really do much more about that)

  • Andrew – if we matched the Swedish infant mortality rate about 1100 babies a year would not die in infancy. Imagine the outcry if a nursery with 20 kids in it burnt down every week. And yet we say “3500 – probably can’t do anything about it”. Yes we can – Sweden shows us that it is possible.

    nb interestingly Sweden does not recommend sterilising baby’s milk bottles – they just stick them in the dishwasher. Sterilising is a peculiarly British thing, for which there is no scientific evidence.

  • Malcolm Todd 1st Feb '10 - 9:03am

    The “death rate” is deaths per person per year – the lower it is, the longer it takes for everybody to die, i.e. the longer everyone is living.

  • Andrew Suffield 1st Feb '10 - 9:26am

    I don’t think it’s been conclusively established that Sweden is doing anything better. A lot of this stuff is genetically linked, so it could simply be that their population is fractionally stronger, on average (note, that’s not been established either).

    When I say we can’t do much more, I mean that we know the cause of death for most of them, and it’s all stuff that current medicine has no idea how to fix. Genetically-linked low birth weight, for example, is not something we can prevent or treat. There’s room for a bit more improvement, but significant progress is going to take some breakthroughs in medical science. (Hey, who’s cutting research spending?)

    Deaths related to infections accounts for 6% of all the infant deaths (about 120), so I don’t think sterilisation is going to have much impact on anything. There’s 1% “external conditions” which we could fix, and maybe some of the infections, but the bottom line is that 74% falls under birth defects and immaturity, and there’s not a whole lot you can do about those. The usual “keep fit, eat healthily, don’t drink or smoke” is the best we have.

    (Data from ONS)

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Feb '10 - 9:56am

    This is a reminder that “life expectancy” is something of a misnomer. Suppose we had a society where half the children born died in infancy, but everyone who survived infancy lived a long age, dying on average at the age of 85. We would say the “life expectancy” for such a society was about 42. Naively we might suppose this meant people living in it would think themselves old once they reached their late 30s, close to death at 40, and would regard someone in their 50s as a strange phenomenon. Obviously, however, people in that society would have a real expectancy that they would live into their 80s, and so would feel about age much as we do now and here.

    What I have described is extreme, but actually quite close to how life really was up till modern medicine.

  • Malcolm Todd 1st Feb '10 - 10:40am

    Yup, that’s why the bible has its famous “three score and ten” years, though few people in Palestine 3000 years ago are likely to have lived so long. People always knew how long they could live, if only accident, disease or violence didn’t cut them down early. Virtually all the increase in ‘life expectancy’ up until very recently (1970s, perhaps?) was down to cutting the probability of those ‘premature’ deaths.

  • this title is incorrect. the average life expectancy of a Victorian was 42. male would be expected to live two less years than women also.

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