Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Life expectancy: A history lesson for Madeleine Bunting

Commenting on Barbara Strauch's new book The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain in the Guardian the other day, Madeleine Bunting wrote:
Middle age is a modern phenomenon – a hundred years ago, life expectancy was 47.
As a letter to the paper pointed out, this is nonsense. Dr Robert Pearce wrote:
Madeleine Bunting (Magic of the midlife mind, 11 April) is incorrect to say middle age is a modern phenomenon because life expectancy was much lower in the past. Life expectancy figures from the past are skewed downwards due to high infant mortality. If 10 children die at age five while 10 people die at 70, the average life expectancy is 37.5. But for those who survive childhood it is 70.
So, taking Bunting's example of 100 years ago, adult life expectancy then was probably not dissimilar to today's figures. For example, Gladstone was 88 when he died, and Disraeli 76.
This is obviously right. Has Madeleine Bunting never read the Bible or Shakespeare or one of the great Victorian novelists? Has she never looked at the stones in cemetery or churchyard?

When you find out that a commentator has gone through life holding such a strange view, it tends to undermine you faith in their work as a whole. I am thinking of the Independent arts correspondent who believed the Victorians used to cover piano legs for the sake of decency and of Polly Toynbee's support for the continuing SDP.

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