When I sit down to write an article, I often feel like I’m having a conversation with you, the reader. Except that it’s a one-sided conversation, in which I never ask you about yourself and I just monopolize the whole exchange. So. . . how about a little more about me? I grew up building robots, programming my own video games, and distributing surveys on bizarre topics around my high school. In the enneagram system of personality analysis (remotely like Myers-Briggs), I’m what’s known as a “number five” – AKA “The Investigator” or “The Scientist.” I have spent many a night jumping from one Wikipedia article to the next, or curled up with a thousand page book on herbs.
One of the topics I like investigating the most is major historical shifts in human health, behavior, and life expectancy – i.e., big changes in small periods of time. If you were to follow the trend of human life expectancy over the course of our existence, you’d see a very, very gradual slope upward and then a sharp jump in just the tiniest, most recent slice of time. This sharp upward jump began at different times in different parts of the world, but in the United States, as recently as 1850 the life expectancy at birth for a white male was just 38. Today it’s about 76.
It’s really a profound thing. Modern humans have been around for about 200,000 years. This 150 year revolution of life expectancy has occurred in just the last 0.00075% of our existence. Incidentally, a historical graph of world population shows a similar trend. It increased very, very slowly, and took a few massive hits, especially during the fourteenth century. (As centuries go, the 1300s were pretty much the crappiest ever. They were marked by famine, plague, crime, and general idiocy.) After that, the population continued to grow again, but still rather slowly compared to what began to happen around 1800. In 1800, the world population was 1 billion. In March of 2012, it hit 7 billion.
An anthropologist from another planet looking at a graph of these trends would probably point to that last slice of time and ask, “What the hell happened there?” Well, there are two very important words I used in a sentence about life expectancy a couple paragraphs ago: “at birth.” At birth, a white baby boy in 1850 was expected to live to 38.3 on average. But if he survived to age ten, his revised life expectancy would be 58 – a huge improvement.
At birth, a white baby boy in 2011 was expected to live to 76.3. If he survived to age ten, his revised life expectancy would be 76.9. There’s barely a difference.
If that child from 1850 made it to age 50, his life expectancy would then be 72. Today’s white boy at age 50 would have a life expectancy of 79.6. Again, there’s barely a difference. So, as you can see, the narrowing of the gap has occurred almost entirely in the early years of life. And there are two important conclusions to be made from this.
First, the tremendous increase in life expectancy at birth can be attributed primarily to three things – better sanitation and cleaner living conditions, better safety standards, and better medicine, including vaccinations. Whatever issues we may have with vaccines (and there certainly are some), it’s undeniable that they’ve hugely decreased child mortality.
Second, we’ve made a much smaller dent in the maximum human lifespan. As an adult British aristocrat in the 1200s, you could expect to live to age 64. By the 1500s, if you made it to age 21, you’d probably live to be about 71. And in the past several centuries, these numbers have barely changed.
Nowadays, if we want to live longer we need to take the long view, since most of us won’t die of infections or accidents. The things old people die of are often decades in the making. The primary killers are coronary heart disease (disturbance in blood supply to heart muscle) and stroke (disturbance in blood supply to the brain), both of which are blood vessel issues. Blood vessels don’t just get hard, clogged, or weak overnight, so there’s a huge opportunity to make a positive difference in this process.
As I see it, there are three main interventions that have the most impact. The first is nutrition, and my nutshell recommendation is to strictly limit consumption of sugars and flour, moderately limit red meat and dairy consumption, and have plenty of vegetables, herbs and spices, fruits and fish. The second is exercise, and the best exercise is a form you enjoy and that you can happily do every day. The third is connection – connection to people, connection to nature, connection to whatever you call the greater power that keeps it all going.
I’ll be writing more about these trends and, in particular, the nutrition factor, this month. Meanwhile, I encourage you to choose one of these areas of positive intervention to focus on each day this week – food, exercise, or connection.