Posts Tagged ‘longevity’

The 2007 Nicholson-Freeman movie, “Bucket List,” asked the question, What would you do new and differently if you had a short time to live? Let’s flip that question over. What would you do new and differently if you realized that you were going to live much longer than you thought? That is the question that many Americans faced in the early part of the twentieth century when it became clear that people were indeed living longer than had been expected since “time immemorial.” And about a generation earlier, Americans had realized that children were surviving infancy at greater rates than had been true since “time immemorial.” That raised its own questions, too.

New York, 1946 (source)

Helen Zoe Veit in a recent issue of the Journal of Social History describes one sort of reaction that American opinion-makers – doctors, journalists, health officials, and the like – had to these new extensions of life: They urged Americans to take personal responsibility for their health. Now that they could live for a long time, it was Americans’ duty to control their health by, for example, eating well and especially, said the doctors and insurance companies, by getting regular doctor check-ups.

This personal responsibility mantra is an ironic response to greater longevity, given that what had extended Americans’ lifetimes was the exercise of collective responsibility. Still, the prospects of longer, safer lives did, it seems, affect Americans’ sense of personal control over their lives.


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Much of the heated debate leading up to passage of health care reform revolved around whether government, as a matter of principle, should have an expanded role in Americans’ health. To many people, it seemed a radical departure from American tradition. The historical truth is that government has long been enmeshed in Americans’ health. Indeed, government is largely why Americans came to live long lives.

Americans in the 19th century faced short horizons. Babies died at such high rates that American mothers could expect to bury one or two newborns or infants. But even adults did not live that long. In 1850, a male who made it through childhood to the age of 20 could expect to live, on average, only to about 60. Many factors, from poor nutrition to pervasive violence, shortened American lives. But the major single cause was disease, especially water-borne disease.

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