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Ancestral Illnesses and Causes

illness-choleraAs you put in an ancestor’s birth-marriage and death dates, you might wonder how come many of our ancestors only lived into their 50s or 60s. Many younger females ancestors appeared to died in their 20s or 30s. There are some logical answers.

Living Conditions: People in many areas lived in crowded conditions, with little or no sanitation, no clean water or proper disposal of waste and garbage. Those conditions could promote the spread of many diseases. Sometimes to poor living conditions there would be constant outbreaks of diseases such as dysentery, typhoid, tuberculosis and cholera which sickened and killed people. The deaths of young children were very common in families in the 1800s because of living conditions.

Children also died early from childhood diseases such as measles, rubella, mumps, polio, diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough), because medical science had not developed vaccines for those diseases yet.

illness-TBA feared disease for all people in the late 1800s into the early 20th century was TB – tuberculosis – also named consumption as written on records back then. Figure about 194 out of 100,000 U.S. citizens in 1900 died from TB. The new medicine of antibiotics in the late 1940s was a miracle drug that regularly saved people from ailments. Antibiotics, fight infections caused by bacteria and was first used with the U.S. military during World War Two (1941-1945). After 1945, it was more available to the general public.

In the late 1800s, doctors were better understanding about germs and how they could be spread. So people beginning in 1900 were encouraged to wash their hands with soap more often.

Our ancestors also did not eat the right foods all the time. If they didn’t get enough of Vitamin C for example, they could suffer physical problems.

illness-pasteurizationA big change came in the 1950s with widespread pasteurization of milk leading to dramatic decreases in illnesses that people were getting from contaminated milk.

Carrying a baby and giving childbirth was difficult for women years ago. Women often died from childbirth and many babies didn’t survive infancy. That explains why you may find many male ancestors remarried one or two times during their life.

So these are a few of the reasons our ancestors, had for the most part, a shorter lifespan. There were rare exceptions, ancestors you may have on the family tree who lived to age 90 or more. Check your family tree.

Photos: Cholera warnings posted, patients with TB, and pasteurization.

Related genealogical blogs:

Old-Time Terms for Illnesses

Civil War Medical Records

Death Record Resources


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