How-To Essay #11 - Average Life Expectancy Explained

I know - I still haven't finished the other essays (2, 4, 8, 9 & 10), but this came up once again and it's really starting to bug me.
 
I received several copies of the "Life in 1904" e-mail this week. The first item read: "The average life expectancy in the US was 47 years."
 
Let's discuss how that statistic came about.
 
Most people "back in the day" lived just as long as most people live today - into their seventies, eighties or even longer. The difference between then and now is that infants and children do not die near as often today as they did prior to the intervention of vaccinations and other medical advances. We've all seen our genealogies and know how many stillborn and "died as an infant/young child" entries there are per family. Lots. Too many.
 
Those young deaths were incorporated into the "average life expectancy" of man. Averages can be worked out very easily, as shown below. One adds the age at death of a group of individuals, then divides the result by the number of individuals in the group. I took ten siblings in order to make the numbers clear and easy to understand.

1900
Individual
Age at Death
Theodore Tokarski

74

Herman Tokarski

78

Ida Tokarski [stillborn]

0

Malvina Tokarski

63

Emelie Tokarski

67

Hedwig Tokarski

42

Wilhelmina Tokarski

76

Gustav Tokarski

64

Johann Tokarski

57

Wilhelm Tokarski

1

    Total of all ages

522

    Divided by # of individuals

10

      Average Life Expectancy

52.2

2000
Individual
Age at Death
Theodore Tokarski

74

Herman Tokarski

78

Ida Tokarski

72

Malvina Tokarski

63

Emelie Tokarski

67

Hedwig Tokarski

42

Wilhelmina Tokarski

76

Gustav Tokarski

64

Johann Tokarski

57

Wilhelm Tokarski

75

    Total of all ages

688

    Divided by # of individuals

10

      Average Life Expectancy

66.8

 
 
By assuming neither Ida nor Wilhelm would have died in infancy (due to "modern day" medical miracles), one can see how the average age of death "rose" dramatically, creating the false impression that the average person lived longer in 2000 than in 1900. The only difference between the two tables is the all-too common occurrence of the deaths of infants and children in 1900, where as the average person lived a "normal" life-span.
 
People are living slightly longer nowadays, thanks to medical advances. And I do mean slightly. I've heard numbers ranging from a whopping 1.5 to 2.7 years longer - no where near the 30 years difference shown in the "1904" e-mail (if one assumes people live to be 77).
 
©2004 ALHN-Rock County, Wisconsin
Last updated: December 8, 2004