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Reasons We have a Longer Lifespan than our Ancestors

clean handsAccording to the National Institute on Aging, most babies who were born in 1900 did not live past the age of 50. Today, people may live to be 80 years old. There are several reasons why we have a longer lifespan than our ancestors did.

Childhood Vaccines
The World Health Organization (WHO) states that immunization averts an estimated 2 to 3 million deaths every year from diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (also known as whooping cough) and measles.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that measles became a nationally notifiable disease in the United States in 1912. In the first decade of reporting, an average of 6,000 measles-related deaths were reported each year. The Measles vaccine was first distributed in 1963, and an improved version was developed in 1968.

From 1840 until 1883, scarlet fever became one of the most common infectious childhood disease to cause death in most metropolitan centers of Europe and the United States. Fatality rates reached or exceeded 30% in some areas, eclipsing even measles, diphtheria and pertussis. The disease is most often seen in children, but can affect people of all ages.

Today, doctors prescribe a number of antibiotics to treat streptococcal infections (which is the type that scarlet fever is). Penicillin is the most commonly prescribed antibiotic to treat it.

Improved Obstetric Medicine
Historically, women died of puerperal fever (also called childbed fever or postpartum sepsis), or from hemorrhage, during or shortly after giving birth. In the 1920s half of maternal deaths were caused by puerperal fever.

People believed that “putrid air” was what spread disease. In 1846, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis discovered that puerperal fever could be prevented if the doctors washed their hands, and their medical instruments, with soap and a chlorine solution. Doing so caused the number of deaths due to puerperal fever to drop.

In the 1930s, nearly 1 out of 100 women died related to complications in childbirth. That number is much lower today thanks to improvements in sanitation, obstetric medicine, and access to contraception (which helps women space out pregnancies).

Improved Sanitation
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that improved sanitation helped people to live longer. In 1900, people shifted from living in rural areas to living in cities. Overcrowding resulted in inadequate or nonexistent public water supplies and waste-disposal systems. This resulted in outbreaks of cholera, TB, influenza, yellow fever, dysentery, and more.

By 1950, the government made progress in prevention disease by improving access to clean water, to the removal of sewage, and educating the public about hygienic practices (such as hand washing). In 1900, 194 out of every 100,000 US residents died from TB. In 1940, that number dropped to 46 out of 100,000 persons.

Image by Arlington County on Flickr.

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* Shocking Things to Learn About Your Ancestors

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