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Longevity changes and their determinants in England and her European neighbours c. 1600- 1900

Longevity changes and their determinants in England and her European neighbours c. 1600- 1900

This project is based upon research supported between 2001 and 2005 from the Wellcome and Leverhulme Trusts and has been undertaken collaboratively with Jim Oeppen, a senior research officer in the Department of Geography until 31 December 2004 and subsequently a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock, Germany. In the analysis of contemporary adult longevity there has been a shift away from explanations that focus on adult life-style determined risk factors towards an emphasis on biologically programmed influences in utero or in very early infancy. This project uses historic data sets to assess the relevance of the aforementioned approaches under conditions primarily of natural (uncontrolled) fertility and mortality regimes dominated by a high incidence of infectious or epidemic disease. Economically modestly situated individuals in parish-register based family reconstitutions are compared with aristocratic elites whose life courses are constructed from genealogies. Contrasts are also made between persons on the basis of their sex, marital status and exposure to childbearing as well as the degree of correlation between their fertility and mortality.

One striking result of work carried out as part of this project and that also undertaken with Professor Jim Vaupel of the Max Planck Institute in Rostock is that life expectancy in those countries possessing the highest annual life expectancy internationally speaking, have improved in a linear fashion from the early nineteenth century at a rate of c. 3 months per annum with a slightly faster rate of improvement for women than men. There is no indication that this rate of improvement is slowing down and it is predicted and that other things remaining equal 'best practice' societies will exhibit life expectancies at birth of 100 by 2050. Results of this sort seriously challenge the prevalent evolutionary biological concept of a maximal life expectancy and constitute a prediction that is almost 13 years higher than that currently scheduled by the US Social Security Administration for 2075. Such findings have generated great interest from such bodies as the UK Treasury and the Institute of Actuaries. In addition there has been broader media attention resulting from this research regarding future retirement ages, pension funding, taxation rates and health and social service provisioning.

It has also been shown that life expectancy for both elite and non-elite sections of English society has been rising uninterruptedly for females since c. 1700. Life expectancy for elite and non elite males also began to rise and improved at a synchronised rate until the second quarter of the 19th century when elites pulled away from non-elites although both groups experienced a phase when the pace of improvement slowed before resuming rises after 1850. Similar improvements are to be found in population groups in Scotland, North America, France, Denmark and Sweden. The simultaneity of these developments across the complete English social spectrum and in European economies with markedly differing levels of GDP per capita indicate that initially, perhaps for the first 120 years, the process had its origins in epidemiological externalities rather than through ameliorations in material conditions or changing life styles. These results are particularly damaging to arguments that use improved nutritional intake as the cause of the changes. Among elites in England adult life expectancy was highest for married than unmarried males and higher for unmarried than married females. Childbearing considerably reduced life chances among elite populations and also served to create similar disadvantages (although reduced) among the married populations of the broader population). However improvements in maternal mortality that were of remarkable dimensions for almost a century before c. 1850 followed a similar course among elites and non-elites and among European populations at differing stages of economic development. Such changes suggest that the pathogenic loads in environments in north-western Europe and possibly the North Atlantic may have reduced significantly and thereby worked to reduce the mortality of mothers who were less exposed to infectious diseases in the third trimester of their pregnancies. These changes are also associated with significant improvements in neonatal and endogenous infant mortality as mothers most likely produced babies less subject to hazards experienced in utero prior to birth. Only adult females over the age of 60 among English non-elites suffered lower life expectancies than elites of the same sex, suggesting that the poverty associated with old age which was frequently spent alone carried a strong responsibility for a health disadvantage. Among the English aristocracy it has been shown that there was a positive correlation of parity with later life mortality suggesting a trade-off of reproductivity and mortality. This project continues and proceeds in tandem with other work based on the measurement of the demographic consequences of poor relief in England.



  • J. Oeppen, L. R. Poos and R. M. Smith, 'Re-assessing Josiah Russell's measurements of late medieval mortality using Inquisitions Post Mortem' in M. Hicks (ed.) The Fifteenth-Century Inquisitions Post Mortem: Source, Process and Potential (Woodbridge, Boydell and Brewer, 2012), pp. 155-168
  • R. M. Smith, 'Measuring adult mortality in an age of plague' in M. Bailey and S. Rigby (eds) Town and Countryside in the Age of the Black Death (Brepols, Brussels, 2012) pp. 43-85. doi:10.1484/M.TMC-eB.1.100558