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Many people believe that the best thing we humans can hope for is to die in our sleep, peacefully and surrounded by loved ones. Unfortunately, for far too many people in the 18th century, the dream of a long life followed by a peaceful death was a dream denied. But what was the life expectancy of the average person living in the 18th century, and what hazards cut those lives short?

Have Things Really Changed?


The short answer is yes. In even the most short-lived populations today, which tend to be those nations lowest on the socioeconomic scale, the life expectancy is still higher than that of the most long-lived (i.e. the most financially prosperous) nations in 1800. In fact, since 1900, the average life expectancy across the globe has more than doubled. There are a lot of factors contributing to this rapid change, but perhaps the most important are improvements in modern medicine, nutrition, and public health.


The Common Good


One of the most significant advances leading to today’s extended life spans is the rise of public health practices over the last three centuries. This includes a growing army of skilled nurses on the frontlines to support patients, families and entire communities in restoring and preserving health. The fact is that nurses and physicians in the 18th century had a lot going against them, from abysmal sanitation in private homes and public spaces alike to the continued influence of antiquated medical beliefs and practices derived primarily from the ancient Greeks and Romans.


Meanwhile, today’s care providers, fortunately, are freed from such constraints. The advent of antibiotics and vaccinations is perhaps one of the greatest advancements in medical history, protecting not only individual patients but also entire populations. In addition, the rise of preventative and public health sciences has introduced a sector of healthcare experts specifically trained to support the well-being of whole communities, entire nations, and even the entire human race, connected as never before in this era of globalization.


Taking Care of Grandma


In addition to the rise of highly effective preventative and public health protocols proliferating the globe, another reason for the dramatic increase in human longevity in the new millennium is the enhancement of eldercare practices, both in the home and in the community. If health practices for the general population were still widely misunderstood in the 18th century, they were even more misguided when it came to the care of the elderly. This isn’t entirely surprising, considering the fact that the average life expectancy in the United States in 1800 was about 36 years. Again, it all boils down to the biggies: sanitation, nutrition, and preventative care.


Even if you were one of the few fortunate enough to have sufficient food and shelter throughout your life, chances are you would still be subjected to some sort of nutritional deficiency putting you at risk for disease and premature death. After all, there were no trucks and planes to provide year-round access to fresh fruits and vegetables from across the globe, nor was there easy access to adequate cold food storage. Those important gaps in nutrition, especially in childhood, made you all the more vulnerable to the poor sanitation, lack of vaccines and antibiotics as you grew older, as well as and the often downright dangerous ancient medical practices that characterize the era.


Not All is Rosy


When we 21st-century people compare ourselves with our Enlightenment-era brothers and sisters, it’s easy to feel lucky in comparison, and maybe even a little smug. But not everything is entirely rosy here in the new millennium. As far as we have come in regard to both preventative and public health, many challenges remain, from the prevalence of hunger, smoking, and obesity that continue to plague human populations around the world to the environmental hazards like asbestos contributing to illness and death every day.


Plus, to be frank, a long life is not always a kindness. Three hundred years ago, families and physicians alike were doing the best they could with what they knew and what they had. But they didn’t know what they didn’t know, and neither do we. That’s especially obvious when it comes to the ethical issues relating to elder care today. We may have the modern technology to keep people alive longer today, but we now see what people in the 18th century might never have been able to imagine: that long life can be either a blessing or a curse.


The Takeaway


The average lifespan in the new millennium far exceeds anything a person living in the Age of Enlightenment could even dream of. But perhaps our forerunners still have something to teach us about packing all the meaning and all the joy we possibly can into whatever years allotted to us. After all, there is no promise of tomorrow. So what matters most is what we do with today.

About the Author:
Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.