Life expectancy vs. life span for humans: has it really changed?

Are we living longer than our ancestors or even people that lived thousands of years ago? It seems that way; life expectancy, until recent years, has risen steadily for decades in many countries (but not in many others or even not within the same country; the benefits of medical advances have not been shared or experienced equally).

But, life expectancy–a statistic, an average–is different than life span. And, the life span of human beings may not have changed much since at least ancient Greece or Rome … and perhaps even before.

“Taken altogether, life span in ancient Rome probably wasn’t much different from today. It may have been slightly less ‘because you don’t have this invasive medicine at end of life that prolongs life a little bit, but not dramatically different’, Scheidel [Stanford University historian Walter Scheidel] says. ‘You can have extremely low average life expectancy … and still have people who live to 80 and 90 at the same time. They are just less numerous at the end of the day because all of this attrition kicks in.’”

And, as time went on “… records show that child mortality remained high. But if a man got to the age of 21 and didn’t die by accident, violence or poison, he could be expected to live almost as long as men today: from 1200 to 1745, 21-year-olds would reach an average age of anywhere between 62 and 70 years.”

So, people have lived into their 60’s, 70’s 80’s, 90’s and beyond for thousands of years. The difference is that more of us (in number) are living that long today and more of us are living healthier lives overall. But, these benefits are still experienced very unevenly–just as in the past when infants, women, and the poor died at greater rates.

Perhaps things really haven’t changed much at all …

Read the complete article:

Ruggeri, Amanda. (2020). Do we really live longer than our ancestors? BBC Future. 2 October 2018.

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