“There are lies, damned lies and statistics,” Mark Twain famously warned. The misrepresentation of statistics is sport in American culture, most obviously and abusively in politics and advertising. Surprising, though, is the arbitrariness with which some statistics are misstated by more credible institutions and authorities.
With more attention focused on boomers and our aging population, it is common to hear how humankind’s life expectancy (average 78 years) has increased by more than 30 years in the past century — a bigger gain than during the past 50 centuries. We truly are living in the “Age of Longevity,” experiencing perhaps the greatest accomplishment in history: fulfilling the age-old dream to extend life.
LIFE EXPECTANCY: “AVERAGE” VS. “AT BIRTH”
This good fortune is a bit of an oversimplification, though. The fact is that our ancestors were not dropping dead in their prime. Technically, the term “average life expectancy” really refers to “life expectancy at birth.” In other words, as April Holloway reports on the “Ancient Origins” website, “it is the average number of years that a newborn baby can expect to live in a given society at a given time.”
Holloway explains why the layman’s use of life expectancy is unhelpful as related to health and longevity, “because a determinant of life expectancy at birth is the child mortality rate which, in ancient times, was extremely high, and this skews the life expectancy rate dramatically downward.”
STONE AGERS WERE ELDERLY, TOO
“Life expectancy is a statistical determination that is useful to population experts but not to individuals,” Philip Goscienski, M.D., explained in the paper ‘The life expectancy myth.’” He notes that although anthropologists calculate that the life expectancy of Stone Agers was about 28 years, this does not mean they would be elderly at 30. Fossil studies have revealed many lived to their 60s, an astounding feat considering the life and death challenges they routinely faced.
Intentionally or not, recitations on the theme of significantly increased life expectancy by such renowned longevity authorities as Robert Butler, M.D. and Stanford’s Laura Carstensen have perpetuated this myth of us dramatically outliving our ancestors.
There is a misperception held by many social scientists, according to a Psychology Today article, that “both in our ancestral past and in many developing nations today, people die at a much younger age than they do in contemporary western industrialized nations.” The erroneous assumption is “the average life expectancy of 40 years means that most adults die at or around the age of 40.”
The fact is, Psychology Today concludes, “Adults everywhere and at all times, including our evolutionary past and in many developing nations today, live to be about the same age.”
TIME TELLS WHEN STATISTICS LIE
This sample of historical figures shows that old age is as old as time. Ben Franklin lived through most of the 18th century, from 1706 to 1790, and died at the ripe age of 84. His fellow founding father Thomas Jefferson lived to age 83. Going much further back, there’s the Greek philosopher Plato, born in 428 B.C., who lived to 80. Victoria was queen of Great Britain until her death in 1901 at age 81. Social reformer Susan B. Anthony died in 1906 at age 86. Buffalo Bill Cody and Apache Chief Geronimo, among the most colorful figures of the American Old West, lived to 70 and 79, respectively.
While statistics may lie, facts always tell the truth. For all time, age is just a number. Nevertheless, achieving healthy longevity remains a timeless goal and accomplishment.