Life Expectancy–1911 and 2011

16-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Wednesday, August 9, 1911: Today is passing and my opportunity for writing anything about it is passing with it. It is not necessary to jot down the happenings of every occurrence.

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Since Grandma didn’t write much a hundred years ago today, I’ll tell you about some statistics I found on the Center for Disease Control website. I’ve often heard that people live longer now than they used to, and I wondered how much longer they lived.

Life expectancy at birth from 1911 to 2011. At all years the life expectancy is higher for females than males. In 1911 the life expectancy at birth for females was 53 years; for males it was 50 years.

Grandma was born in 1895. I don’t have data for people born in 1895, but assume that the life expectancy was even lower then than in 1911. Grandma lived longer than average.  She died in 1981 when she was 85-years-old.

Since more children died shortly after birth a hundred years ago than today, I thought that might affect the birth life expectancies. So I also checked the life expectancy at age 60.In 1911 a 60-year-old female could expect to live 15 more years; a male could expect to live 14 more years. In 2011 a 60-year-old female can expect to live 24 more years and a male can expect to live 21 more years. Life expectancy at age 60 for the years between 1911 and 2011. At all years the life expectancy is higher for females.(For those who care–The 2011 numbers are for the most recent available year. The Center for Disease Control has not yet released the 2011 life expectancy tables, so those estimates may go up or down slightly after they becomes available.)

21 thoughts on “Life Expectancy–1911 and 2011

  1. Fascinating on so many levels. I love Helena’s introspection and your extrapolation of it to life expectancy. The male life expectancy chart at age 60 is curious. What changed in the late 60s to improve the rates? Was it the push to make people aware of the dangers of smoking or was there some medical breakthrough?

    1. I’m not sure why the life expectancy at age 60 improved in the 1960s–but your suggestion makes sense to me that maybe it was because people became more aware of the dangers of smoking. I did a quick Google search and increases in life expectancy seem to be generally attributed to public health initiatives, medical breakthroughs, and improved nutrition.

  2. Excellent graphs that I can use when I explain that the US Census’ 72 year privacy rule has nothing to do with life expectancy in my Family History Research class!

  3. Like the earlier commenter, I wanted to add other things that may have had a hand in the life expectancies 100 years ago: the types of work a person does, for one. There were some very dangerous working environments and no safety regulation. I found this out when I worked the graveyard shift in a 100+yr old funeral home in downtown Los Angeles: I would go up to the records room and read the death and funeral records for the early 1900s while on my lunch break. You’d be amazed at the horse and buggy accidents, railcar coupling fatalities, and tramplings…also, the elevator mishaps and misadventures eating poisonous toadstools in the forests near present-day Santa Monica. In 1918, I noticed that the Spanish Influenza seemed to hit 18-30 yr-olds hardest and resulted in large death tolls around the world. Tuberculosis was common here too as everyone came West to the drier climate to convalesce.
    Modern transport and safer working conditions and vaccines keep us from ever realizing the hard lives of 100 years ago, I am certain.

    1. Even a hundred years ago, a few people lived to be very elderly. I’ve often wondered about the health of those people in their later years.

  4. My Grandmother was born in 1860, the year before Lincoln was elected. She lived to 93 after giving birth to 10 children. One of these,
    my aunt was head nurse in a Los Angeles area hospital until age 95.
    She survived to live past 100. Her brother was in the early vitamin
    business, & a ww1 Canadian fighter pilot. He survived until 97 y.o. My
    Dad only made it to 83, but that was in the late 1970s. I’m motivated
    to outlive even my aunt by a few years. They say we gain 3 months
    of life due to medical progress for every year we stick around. My
    primary car internist at the VA, has kidded me about looking extremely young for 74, I hope that will still be the case when I’m 84, or, God
    willing… 94. Tomorrow, my former airline business associate, Dave McCoy,who founded Mammoth Mt. Ski area will be 100, his wife Roma is 95.
    A great guy…in every way.

  5. I suppose, for people born between 1910 and 1930, life expectancy was shortened by wars. It’s also so that many people lived very long lives once they were past the middle age. It’s probably different in countries like USA and Canada, but Europe certainly suffered from shorter life spans due to revolutions and 2 World wars. Anyway, it was very interesting to compare.

    1. I think you are right. Your comment made me want to be sure I understood the definition of “life expectancy.” According to Wikipedia, “Life expectancy is an average computed over all people including those who die shortly after birth, those who die in early adulthood in childbirth or in wars, and those who live unimpeded until old age.”

  6. The large number of people taking yoga, aerobics, Pilates, and dance of all kinds probably has an effect on health, too.
    I enjoyed reading all these comments. Thanks.

    1. No doubt that’s true, but a large number of people get no more exercise today than going to the break room for a donut.

      There’s a great older essay on modern life and exercise (amongst other things) if a person can find it. It’s Henry Fairlie’s “The Cow’s Revenge”, which was published in The New Republic a couple of decades back. At least at one time, you could find some of it on line.

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