Has Medicine Really Increased our Life Expectancy?

Life expectancy has increased over the last century to almost double the previous figures. In this article, we'll take a closer look at one of the factors that have led to this increase: modern medicine.
Has Medicine Really Increased our Life Expectancy?

Last update: 03 September, 2021

Life expectancy has notably increased in recent decades, especially in developed countries.

The concept is basically the number of years that, on average, a person is expected to live. For example, it could be said that people who are 65 years old today have a life expectancy of about 20 years longer. Until relatively recently, life expectancy at birth was around 30 to 40 years.

Fortunately, this has changed. Many people attribute this fact to advances in medicine. In this article, we’ll explain how medicine has influenced life expectancy and what other factors have played a role.

Increase in life expectancy around the world

Life expectancy is the average number of years that a given population lives in a certain period of time.

Until recently, human beings had a lower life expectancy. In fact, this was so much so that life expectancy at birth was around 30 years. According to a publication in The New York Times, this number has now increased significantly. Since 1900, it’s estimated that life expectancy worldwide has more than doubled.

The longevity record was set more than twenty years ago. A French woman named Jeanne Calment died at the age of 122. This is exceptional, as most people don’t even reach the age of 90!

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Has medicine really increased life expectancy?

Life expectancy in the world has almost doubled in the last century. Medicine has played a leading role in this as it has reduced mortality from infectious diseases.

For example, the development of vaccines and antibiotics has helped to control diseases such as smallpox and malaria. However, there are other determining factors. Improving the quality of water and food, the cleanliness of public spaces, and even the promotion of hygiene have been fundamental.

Thanks to advances in medicine, pregnancy and childbirth conditions have also improved. Similarly, there has been a reduction in infant mortality rates.

The decrease in mortality due to infectious causes led to cancer and other chronic issues gaining weight. However, progress in the diagnosis and treatment of complex disorders has also increased life expectancy.

Medicine has made progress even in rare diseases. Therapeutic options are increasing. Although it’s true that a cure hasn’t been found for many of them yet, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, we’re getting closer and closer to finding it!

A doctor on a computer
Medical advances have made it possible to cure health issues that didn’t have any treatment 50 or 60 years ago.

Death rates have declined

Life expectancy has increased and death rates have decreased. The overall mortality rate is somewhat high in childhood and declines during early life, generally.

During adulthood, it somewhat rises again. However, it reaches its highest point at 70. It’s true that death rates have fallen thanks to medicine. However, many other aspects have influenced this fact.

Epidemiological transition is defined as a change in the patterns of death and disease affecting a population. This is what has happened in the last three decades.

Certain countries have managed to move from high mortality rates due to infectious diseases and periods of famine to having degenerative diseases as the main causes of death.

Thus, in developed countries, the main causes of death are cardiovascular diseases and cancer. However, in developing countries, the 6 leading causes of death continue to be infectious diseases.

The reason is that the epidemiological transition isn’t equitable. This means that life expectancy is also different depending on many external factors.

Living beyond the age of 100

Living beyond the age of 100 is rare. The limits of human longevity are still unknown. Once a person exceeds the age of 70 or 80, there’s a high prevalence of comorbidities.

This makes the population over 100 years of age very frail. Dementias constitute the most frequent group of health issues at this age. The same is true for arterial hypertension, cancerous processes, and other degenerative disorders.

Studies have shown that cellular damage inevitably occurs throughout life. This damage is only partially repaired. Therefore, as time goes by, the body weakens.

The so-called mortality plateau could be around the age of 105. From this point on, the probability that a person will die the following year is 50%. In other words, the risk of death doesn’t progress as one ages above this point.

An old person
Longevity is a topic under study. After 100 years of age, it’s difficult to establish medium-term life expectancy.

Life expectancy is an estimate

Life expectancy is an estimate of how many years a given population lives. It isn’t specifically adjusted to each individual, but is a guideline figure. In the last century, it has increased to almost double what was estimated decades ago.

People in developed countries have a life expectancy of around 80 years. However, we should bear in mind that this doesn’t apply equally to all countries in the world.

It’s unknown what the maximum human age may be. Medicine has helped considerably to improve life expectancy, but it hasn’t been the only influential factor.

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  • Domínguez Alonso, Emma, and Armando H. Seuc. “Esperanza de vida ajustada por algunas enfermedades crónicas no transmisibles.” Revista Cubana de Higiene y Epidemiología 43.2 (2005): 0-0.
  • ¿Cuántos años puede vivir un ser humano? – The New York Times. (n.d.). Retrieved May 17, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/es/2018/07/05/espanol/expectativa-de-vida-longevidad.html
  • Arredondo García, José Luis. “Transición epidemiológica.” (2019).
  • PRIETO GÓMEZ, BERTHA, ROCÍO CONTRERAS PÉREZ, and MIREYA VELÁZQUEZ PANIAGUA. “El envejecimiento y los radicales libres.” Ciencias 075.