Friday, November 1, 2013

Increase in life expectancy: the jump from the Middle Ages to Modern Times

Even though life expectancy is a statistical measurement that varies from country to country and between gender, data shows that it has increased in the last centuries. During the 1600s, for example, life expectancy was an average of 35 years for women and men. On the next two centuries, people lived an average of 20 years more. Nowadays, the average is 75 years for both sexes, according to reports from the World Health Organization. The biggest causes of this increase, over the centuries, are the simplest ones: improvement of water and sanitation, development of agricultural techniques, and basic advances in medicine.

To begin, lack of drinkable water and of sanitation were some of the worst issues causing premature deaths in medieval world. Not everybody had access to fresh water and when they had, it could have been contaminated by human or animal waste. Beer and wine, for example, were drank often because the alcohol contained in such beverages killed all types of germs. The lack of hygiene also caused the spread of many diseases such as cholera, bubonic plague, and diarrhea. So, when water started being treated and sewage was collected and disposed in a safe way, less people died due to lack of sanitation. At the same time, people were improving techniques to transport water through long distances.

Consequently, the combination of potable water and better irrigation systems gave farmers the opportunity to develop agriculture techniques such as the use of water or windmills. These better and stronger mills accelerated the process of grinding grains to make flour, resulting in an ample availability of products made using that ingredient, such as breads, pies, and pottages. One more important example of basic agriculture technology that contributed to life expectancy was the invention of the mechanical seeder, which spread seeds uniformly throughout the land and made the crops bigger, resulting in more produce to be harvested. The more food available, the less people dying from hunger, marasmus, anemia, or other malnutrition related diseases.

Equally, significant advances in basic medicine resulted in the increase of life expectancy. Improvement of childbirth practices, study of anatomy, and the development of vaccines are just a few examples. Physicians relied as much in Astrology as on their limited knowledge of medicine. As artists started to study anatomy to improve their paintings, their drawings also helped doctors and scientists to learn more about the human body. At the same time, the invention of the printing press enabled these drawings to be copied and shared, thus spreading the knowledge of the human body. This awareness facilitated the work of midwives and doctors during childbirth, resulting in less casualties during childbirth. However, babies were not safe from smallpox, measles, or influenza until the invention of vaccines. The discoveries of Louis Pasteur, who was a French chemist, about the causes and prevention of diseases has saved the lives of many people since the 1800s.

As shown above, with all the improvements in water treatment, sanitation, agriculture, and medicine, it isn’t a surprise that we now understand the increase in life expectancy in general.

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