[back] Living longer myth

J. I. Rodale questions a basic tenet of Modern Medicine.
From Rodale Press (1955) p22:

The Life Expectancies

J. I. Rodale

“If names be not correct, then language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on successfully.” - Confucious

At this point it would be advisable to correct a very common misconception because, with regard to the opinions of our length of life, much looseness of thought prevails. The ordinary death rate figure is too much of an average. It is obtained by applying all of the deaths in a particular year against the total population figure. In 1900 the death rate was approximately 17 deaths per thousand of population. In 1950 it was a little more than 9½ which rneans that in 50 years the average death rate was reduced about 7½ years.

These figures, however, are only broad averages, and since each person is a specific person and not an average, they are very confusing in as far as such a person’s future expectancy of life is concerned. So to satisfy the requirements of each person a different set or sets of figures are computed which are called life expectancies, and such life expectancy figures are available for each age.

To give you an example, a baby born in the United States in 1951 can look forward to a little more than 67 years of life. This is its life expectancy. But this also is an average. However, it is less of an average, so to speak, than going by the fact that the rate of death has been reduced to 9.6 deaths per year per 100,000 of all the population. As far as the expectancy of life of the baby born in 1951 is concerned, a lot depends on its family, its inheritance and its environ-ment, and there will be a great variation in the length of life of different babies, but for all practical purposes it gives us an approximate picture of what might be expected, and is valuable for purposes of comparison with other years.

As we mentioned above, a baby born in 1951 can look forward to about 67 years of life, while a baby born in the 1900-1902 period had. a life expectancy of only 48, which means that the present day baby has an advantage of 19 years. So far so good. In fact, I wish I were; a baby today so that I could have the advantage of these extra 17 extra years of life. Actually I am no longer a baby. I am a grown up man, 56 years old, and am confronted with an entirely different life expectancy situation.

To get what I mean, let us take the case of a man who was 50 years old in 1901. What life expectancy could such a man look forward to? From the figures 1 have, this is about 20¾ years. In other words a man who had reached the age of 50 in 1901 could be expected to reach the age of about 71, if nothing untoward happened and conditions were average. It means that some would live to 60 and others to 80 or 90, but the average would be about 71.

Now what could a man look forward to if he was 50 years old in 1947? According to the life expectancy tables, this would be about 221/3 years, so that while a baby has gained 19 years of life, a 50 year old man has the advantage of only about two years more to look forward to. Something has happened in between the age of zero and 50 which has destroyed practically all the advantages of our vaunted medical and health setup, our antibiotics, cortisone, insulin, our improved surgery, and what not!

In Paris in 1809 a very disastrous bank failure occurred because the management did not take into consideration the difference in life expectancy between various age-groups. In 1791 Joachim Lafarge founded a bank which was based on the lives of the depositors. There was an element of payment based on age, combined with the safe-keeping of the money. Brillat-Savarin in his Physiology of Taste in speaking of it said, "The Lafarge bank, so well known by Parisians, would undoubtedly have succeeded, if those who established it had made to enter into their calculations the truth of the facts developed by Dr. Vulliermet. They calculated mortality according to the tables of Buffon, Dépariceux, and others, which are based on numbers taken from all classes and from all ages of the population. But, as those who put their capital out at interest to keep something for the future have in general escaped the dangers of childhood, and as they are accustomed to a regular diet, well prepared and often nutritious, the death-rate was lower than was expected, their hopes were frustrated, and Lafarge completely failed."

In January, 1952, Wilfred N. Sisk, M.D., physician in charge of Industria1 Health for Upjohns, the great pharmaceutical concern, wrote a brilliant article in Organic Gardening, a publication of which I am editor. It brings to light a startling discrepancy in the general conception of the mortality figures. Dr. Sisk said,

"The table which we usually see in the newspaper is the table of life expectancy at birth. That means that the average length of life for all babies born for example in 1950 in the United States will probably be 68 years. The similar average for 1850 was approximately 35 years. (Exact figures are not available for this period.) In 1900 the average was not much better -- about 41 years. "If a child one day old dies of a streptococcic septicemia he takes away from the life table many man-years of time. In order to have an average life expectancy of 35 years as our country did in 1850, it means that some other child must live to be 70 years of age. Now that is exactly what happened many times over in 1850. And it is this table of life expectancy at birth which has shown so much improvement. Better medical practice has contributed to the really remarkable improvement in the lot of children and young adults.

"But what of the individual who has already reached the age of 40 years? Here the picture is not so pleasant. In fact, when carefully analyzed the picture is downright discouraging. As I stated above, life insurance companies keep expectancy tables for all ages. Let us see what a representative table means. A fairly complete table is available for white males in the United States from 1850 to 1947.

"At birth white males could expect to live, on the average, 38 years in 1850, 48.2 years in 1900 and 65.2 years in 1947. This is a clear and really gratifying increase of 27.2 years. Let us compare that with the life expectancy at age ten. In 1850 a child who reached ten years of age could expect to live to be 58 years of age, in 1900 the expectancy was for 60.6 years, and in 1947 for 68.1 years. For the children who reached ten years of age there was a gain of only ten years.

"The figures below mean of course that much has been done in the improvement of the health of small children. Let us contrast that with the expectancy at age 40. In 1850 white men who lived to be 40 years old could expect on the average to live 27.9 years longer or to a total age of 67.9. In 1900 the expectancy had actually decreased to 27.7 (total age of 67.7) while in 1947 it had only increased to 30.6 (total age 70.6).

"Thus we can see that for men who lived to be 40 years of age the life expectancy had only increased 2.7 years in virtually 100 years. This is certainly not much to be proud of. At age 50 the life expectancy table is no better. In 1850 a man age 50 could expect to live 21.6 more years (to a total age of 71.6 years) whereas in 1900 he could expect 20.8 years (total age 70.8 years) and in 1947 the expectancy was 22.3 years (total age 72.3 years). In almost 100 years we have improved the picture for age 50 by only 1.3 years. As you will see from the table for age 60 and 70 we have actually lost ground. The death rates in 1850 were better than those today."

Expectation of Life by Race and Sex in the United States
From 1850 to 1947 for the Decennial Ages of Life
  Age/White Males
Calender Period 0 10 40 50 60 70
  1850 38.30 48.00 27.90 21.60 15.60 10.20
  1900-1902 48.23 50.59 27.24 20.76 14.35 9.03
  1947 65.16 58.14 14.30 22.32 15.30 9.71

Why is all this concealed from us? Ask the average physician if we are getting healthier and he will tell you that we have added about 17 years to a man's life span, and yet a person who is fifty years old today has only one year more of life span to look forward to. But the physicians and the medical agencies continue to reiterate that we have added greatly to our length of life. The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in a bulletin dated November 17, 1947, said, "The average length of life in the Western World has increased about 25 years in the past century". What they mean is that the average length of life of babies has increased 25 years.

This fact was known back in 1938 by the famous Dr. Raymond Pearl of Johns Hopkins who in the Proceedings of the Institute of Medicine, October 15, 1938, said:

"The data show that the important achievements in altering the shape of the ladder of life in the last 50 years have been mainly in regard to the lower rungs. And it is chiefly the lowest or 10-year rung that has been improved. In 1890 only 72 per cent of the boy babies starting got a foothold on that l0-year rung; now 91 per cent do. Those who attain the age of 70 now actually do not do so well relatively, on the average, in the way of further survival to still higher ages as did the stalwarts of 1890. At that time 600 out of every 10,000 white males alive at age 70 lived on to 90 or more. Now, on the basis of the 1929-31 experience, only 563 manage this feat. The span of human life has not been lengthened, and there is no present prospect that it soon will be. The average duration of life is all that has been altered, and that has been accomplished chiefly by giving more babies a fairer start in life's journey than they used to have."

Dr. Victor Heiser, author of An American Doctor's Odyssey, in a speech delivered before the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in 1939 said, "Your chance of increasing your life span after the age of 35 has not been increased one iota in the past 100 years!"

In the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette (October 5, 1952) Dr. Walter L. Palmer, professor of medicine at the University of Chicago said. (quoting the newspaper), "There has been less success in treating the diseases of old age. In 1850, a 60-year-old man in Massachusetts could look forward to an average of 15 years and six months of life, but nationally today he can only expect an average of 15 years and five months.''

Quoting Time magazine for February 12, 1945, in regard to a statement made by surgeon General Thomas Parran in his annual report to Congress: "U. S. health is just about as bad as it was 25 years ago. In 1918, 34 per cent of men examined were found unfit for military service. Now about 40 percent are rejected."

U. S. News and World Report, March 24, 1950: "An individual aged 40 or over can look forward today to a life span only a shade longer than his grandfather expected at 40 a half century ago. A man aged 60 can expect to live no longer, than his ancestor could after 60 at the close of the Revolution, 170 years ago.

"Middle-aged people, at this time, have been led to expect longer lives by reports of major gains in life expectancy. The facts do not show it!"

Detroit Times, March 13, 1953, "Medical science has not increased the life span at all, a New York University doctor said today, and people in general will be better off if they realize it... nothing has been accomplished to increase the ultimate life span." The newspaper was referring to a speech by Michael M. Dacso, M.D.

Lancet magazine (London), October 6, 11951: "The lack of an substantial progress in the extension of the span of life for the over-60 might be considered one of the failures of modern medicine."

Horace R. Bassford, Vice-president and chief actuary, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company: '"It is natural to ask whether mortality has shown equal improvement at all ages. The answer is No. When we say that death rates have declined, we must realize that most of the improvement has taken place at the younger ages, particularly among children. Only in recent years have we seen any considerable improvement in the mortality of people in their 40's and 50's. However, there has been very little improvement at the advanced ages. Any one of us who lives to be a hundred will still have a good chance of breaking into the headlines. As far as living beyond the century mark is concerned, we have very little edge ever the ancients, for with all our modem advances, there is no evidence that we have added any years to the maximum age that a man can live."

This was on the General Electric Science Forum (WGY Schenectady) May 5, 1948.

Metropolitan Life Insurance Bulletin November 23, 1951: "Although the overall mortality record of the United States is one of the best in the world, and death rates in youth and early maturity compare very favorably with those of other countries, for people at ages 45 and over the mortality record lags behind that of other advanced nations."

In a bulletin issued by the University of Minnesota (Vol. 24, No. 18 February 20, 1953), "In the United States all official propaganda has long stressed our steady improvement in the so-called 'expectation of life,' but this is primarily a reflection of the infant death rate. In total expectation of life the United States is about midway in the countries listed... which means that we are relatively healthy as infants and children but unhealthy as adults."

Is this proof enough that something is wrong in connection with the way our mortality figures are dished out? Note the statement in the last item that "all official propaganda has long stressed our steady improvement in the so-called expectation of life." It looks as if the authorities fear to tell the people the truth for some reason. Why should this be so? When Pearl Harbor occurred the people were told about it and it made them work harder to win the war.

We must admit one thing. There are more older people in the population today than there were in 1900, but this is due to the fact that fewer babies are dying. More of them are therefore living to older ages. This is due, not to the fact that modern babies are healthier or stronger than the 1850 babies, but that they are being protected against diptheria and other killing contagious diseases by various methods. Unhygienic conditions used to kill babies by the millions through dysentery, for example. There is much evidence to show that older people today suffer far more from chronic diseases than did their old time counterparts. They are weaker, they doctor more. They are operated on more. How many people are going around without their gall bladder? How many women have had their ovaries removed? They live and they suffer! They have only one or two years more of life, but how they suffer for it! The people were basically healthier in past centuries and lived longer provided they were not knocked off in infancy or mowed down in later life by some contagious disease like diphtheria or tuberculosis.

Let us look at the ages of some of our Revolutionary War figures: Benjamin Franklin lived to be 84, Jefferson 76, John Adams 91, John Quincy Adams 81, Washington 67, Madison 85, Monroe 73, Morris 72, Martha Washington 70, John Hay 84, Betsy Ross 84, Lafayette 77, General Gates 78, Andrew Jackson 78, John Marshall 80, and Tom Paine 72.

According to a news release (October 28, 1946) of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, the men in the White House since 1900, "failed by an average of eight years to live long enough to attain their expectation of life at inauguration. The Presidents who served from 1850 to 1900 did somewhat better, and fell short of their expectation by an average of about six years. On the other hand, those who took office prior to 1850 actually outlived their expectation on an average by 2.9 years."

You might say that the Presidents of former times led a more peaceful existence and therefore lived longer, but if you will read my book This Pace is Not Killing Us, you will see that it is not that. The fact of the matter is, according to modern statistics, that congressmen, although leading a more hectic life, live longer than representative professional people. Vegetating, in itself, is not the factor in longevity.

In this subject of life expectancies there is an important element regarding which I would like to speak. Let us take the case of a man 40 years old. According to the figures he has about three more years of life to look forward to if he is living today as compared to a man of 40 living in 1850. But we are overlooking a tremendously important fact. People die of two kinds of diseases, outside of accidents, suicides, etc. They die either of a contagious or a degenerative one, the latter I class including cancer, heart, disease, diabetes, etc.

Now, if a man of 40 is going to die in the contagious category, he really will benefit from a tremendous increase in life expectancy, because relatively few people today die from that cause. But if he is in the degenerative category he has a much shorter life expectancy at age 40 than an age 40 man in 1950 who will shuffle off this mortal coil from cancer or heart disease. It is practically written in a person's cards through what type of ailment his or her life will end, because the process of degeneration begins at least in the early twenties if not sooner. Cancer may flare up or strike suddenly, but it was there a long time.

What the statisticians must do is to take the 1850 figures, divide them into two classes, and derive therefrom a separate life expectancy figure for each group -- the one for contagious diseases, the other for degenerative. The same thing should be done for the current mortality figures. This would then show up the terrific error of which we are all guilty -- the error of modern health, because cancer and heart disease deaths in the eighteen hundreds were only a small fraction of what they are today.

I can express this in another way. Let us say that between 1850 and 1900 there was applied all the knowledge that was later learned about how to curb the contagious diseases, and how to prevent infant mortality, but nothing else was touched which could be a factor in the increase of cancer and heart disease. We would then come up with an extremely low set of death rates, which when compared with today's figures would indicate that we are becoming less healthy.

I hear one objection. It might be said that there would be one element which would unbalance part of my theory, and that is that there are more older people in the population today and more older people die of cancer. This is only partly true. Cancer is increasing at all ages but more so in the older brackets. But this is more than offset by heart disease deaths that are causing havoc in the ages of between forty and fifty.



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