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A Little Perspective from the Deep Past

Check out the short post by Reason at Fight Aging, "A Little Perspective from the Deep Past":

The growth in health, welfare, and wealth of 18th century Europe was a glittering spire when set against any measure of the grand history of humanity. A pinnacle set abruptly at the end of a very long, very gentle upward slope.


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  1. Sadly, I’ve grown more skeptical of medical intervention as of late. The vast majority of increase in lifespan mentioned in this article appears to have come from higher standards of living and public health initiatives rather than high technology. In that sense, wealthy countries may have reached a legitimate peak. I still fully support SENS, but I don’t see the same powerful upward curve in life expectancy as I do in processing power.

  2. True that. Even “curing” cancer would only add a few years to life expectancy.

  3. There is a difference between average life expectancy and maximum life span. The former can easily be increased or decreased by attempts to make sure babies don’t die. Not realizing this can lead to spurious claims. For example, why do people in Cuba have a higher life expectancy than those in the US? In part, this is because we count babies who are born near death as alive and they don’t.

    Conversely in primitive societies some people do live a long time. This shouldn’t be surprising either, after all they, compared to modern Westerners, often had to practice involuntary calorie restriction which could be helpful even though they didn’t know how to practice calorie restriction with optimal nutrition.

    If the bugs or the warfare didn’t get you, you really could live to ninety or longer. Of course, they got a lot of people.

  4. I often wondered about infant mortality as it relates to life expectancy. When “average life expectancy” figures are usually shown, do they typically include infant mortality or not?

  5. Summerspeaker, try telling your grandmother or grandfather to avoid the high technology at the hospital and see how long they live. All four of my grandparents are still alive (in their mid-70s, early 80s) because of high technology related interventions: surgery, modern diagnostics, chemotherapy, sleep apnea machines, etc.

    Michelle, here’s a quote from an article on the subject:

    A neolithic tomb at Isbister (The Tomb of the Eagles) on Orkney, off the north coast of Scotland, produced the remains of 342 people. The age profile of the bones showed a population where children outnumbered adults three to one. The most commom age of death was early adulthood, between 15 and 30. Only 1.5% of people were over 40, and very few lived to reach the age of 50. Old age, rather than life, began at 40.

    An article by Leonard Hayflick, one of the world’s foremost aging experts, said:

    Prehistoric human remains have never revealed individuals older than about 50 years of age, and humans had a life expectancy at birth of 30 years or less for more than 99.9% of the time that we have inhabited this planet.

    All the material on anthropology I have ever read is pretty much in line with the above quotes. I’m not where you heard the number 90, but I suspect that the source was probably influenced by the concepts of Romanticism and the Noble Savage, not to mention Bibilical stories about Hebrew tribal chieftans living hundreds of years.

    Dave, I would think they would have to avoid including infant mortality. Infant mortality was so high historically (20%+) that it would have a larger impact on average life expectancy if it were taken into account.

  6. Actually, though it’s an admittedly anecdotal source, my sister-in-law spoke of the graveyard in Cades Cove Tennessee where there are more infant graves than adult ones. I’ve read modern sources that suggested that in the late nineteenth early twentieth centuries, childhood diseases were a major drag on life expectancy. C. S. Lewis, while not a statistician, had a passage in the Screwtape Letters that indicated he thought half of babies died in infancy, something which I doubt is correct but shows an acceptance of high infant mortality rates in the 1940s.

    Also, I’ve heard of modern hunter-gathers doing things like pre-chewing things for toothless elderly folk.

    The figure of ninety did, I admit, come out of a cocked hat. I also believe to some extent in a modified version of the noble savage myth,
    in that I don’t think that everybody was miserable living in the conditions we evolved in. In fact, this would true only if misery was a boost to survival.

    I take your point about what Hayflick said, but I still doubt that those primitive folks were dying of what we think of as diseases of aging. Aging is what you get when you take away infectious causes of death plus much violence plus some other issues such as lack of dental care.

    I still hold with the idea that life expectancy, not maximum life span has risen.

  7. Actually, according to Wikipedia, maximum life span might have risen slightly since the sixties. I agree with Summerspeaker that barring mind uploading, something that I’m intensely interested in but don’t expect soon, increases in lifespan are likely to be modest in the immediate future.

    I also think that needs to be worked on most is not increasing lifespan but social and technological resilience, though that’s probably harder. I want my children’s lives to be free of want and coercion more than I want to live a long time myself.

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