Out of Control Policy Blog

Were all Supermen now

Well sort of, compared to our scrawny, sickly selves of a century or so ago.

I just submitted a piece that's scheduled to run in the Los Angeles Business Journal in which I argue that life in Los Angeles is better than it was a generation ago. Much of my argument focused on progress, like medical advances, that doesn't have a whole lot to do with the specific goings on of LA politics.

I wish I had seen this fascinating NYT piece (first in a series, btw) that Peter Gordon flags.

It illustrates

    what may prove to be one of the most striking shifts in human existence – a change from small, relatively weak and sickly people to humans who are so big and robust that their ancestors seem almost unrecognizable.

    New research from around the world has begun to reveal a picture of humans today that is so different from what it was in the past that scientists say they are startled. Over the past 100 years, says one researcher, Robert W. Fogel of the University of Chicago, humans in the industrialized world have undergone "a form of evolution that is unique not only to humankind, but unique among the 7,000 or so generations of humans who have ever inhabited the earth."

We're bigger than we used to be. In 1850 the average man was 5 feet 7.4 inches and weighed 146 lbs. By 2000, the average stood 5 feet 9.5 inches tall and weighed in at 191 lbs. IQs have been increasing for decades and we live longer and healthier lives:

    Today's middle-aged people are the first generation to grow up with childhood vaccines and with antibiotics. Early life for them was much better than it was for their parents, whose early life, in turn, was much better than it was for their parents.

Peter also points out that just last month a cervical cancer vaccine became available. Some more interesting bits from the NYT article:

    The biggest surprise emerging from the new studies is that many chronic ailments like heart disease, lung disease and arthritis are occurring an average of 10 to 25 years later than they used to.

    ...
    In 1900, 13 percent of people who were 65 could expect to see 85. Now, nearly half of 65-year-olds can expect to live that long.

In the mid-19th Century life was indeed nasty and brutish as folks often segued from one disease to another:

    Men who had respiratory infections or measles tended to develop chronic lung disease decades later. Malaria often led to arthritis. Men who survived rheumatic fever later developed diseased heart valves.

And more stuff for the "Overworked Americans" file:

    People would work until they died or were so disabled that they could not continue, Dr. Fogel said. "In 1890, nearly everyone died on the job, and if they lived long enough not to die on the job, the average age of retirement was 85," he said. Now the average age is 62.

    A century ago, most people were farmers, laborers or artisans who were exposed constantly to dust and fumes, Dr. Costa [an MIT economist] said. "I think there is just this long-term scarring."

Related: Nutrition and the Decline in Mortality Since 1700

Related: Rather be miner or web designer?

Stay tuned: My upcoming policy brief, Why Mobility Matters, touches on some of the ways imporved mobilty has made our lifes longer, healthier, and better.

Ted Balaker is Producer


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