In the last two centuries, life expectancy has more than doubled from under 40 to over 70. This is the difference between parents burying their children and children not knowing both parents to today where grandchildren and grandparents are commonplace.
What has caused this dramatic extension in life expectancy? What has made living beyond 100 more common and childhood death more rare?
One suggestion might be antibiotics.
20th century medicine was about antibiotics. Starting in 1911, over 100 different antibiotics were released. Some of the big ones were penicillin, tetracycline, doxycycline, amoxicillin, ciprofloxacin. Anitbiotics treat a wide range of diseases including: anthrax, whooping cough, pneumonia, botulism, and STDs. If you plan an international vacation, your doctor will give you ciprofloxacin for “traveler’s diarrhea.”
None of this would have been possible were it not for the 19th century discovery: GERMS! For 1000s of years prior to the 1800s, western medical theory was about humors. Health was controlled by the four humors: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. When the humors were in balance you were healthy.
When they were out of balance, you’d get sick, and you might be told to exercise more, eat healthier, be positive, pray, or if you could afford it, a doctor might try to balance the humors with medicines and procedures. These included bleeding, laxatives, and expectorants.
Before we laugh at two millenia of western medical science, reread that previous paragraph. Much of that advice, with the exception of bleeding, is still offered today. Thus, if we are honest, we can see the attraction of this commonsense medicine that let so many die.
The 19th century changed all this (or did it?) with the discovery of specific germs for “anthrax, cholera, tuberculosis, leprosy, diphtheria, gangrene … plague, scarlet fever, tetanus, typhoid fever, pneumonia, gonorrhea and meningitis.”
This was all good, but germ theory and antibiotics only sometimes helped when people got sick. Penicillin was given credit for saving many lives in World War II, but the real gains came from preventions more than cures.
The reasons that so many children and grandparents are alive is the long list of diseases that people growing up today have never seen — all thanks to vaccines.
Children are routinely protected from: chickenpox, diphtheria, influenza b, hepatitis A and B, measles, mumps, whooping cough, polio, pneumoccal, rotavirus, rubella, and tetanus. If you don’t recognize some of these diseases, it is not because they aren’t terrible or contagious, but because of vaccinations.
Beyond these vaccines, if you are going to travel you might also get shots for meningitis, typhoid, and yellow fever.
The extension in life expectancy is not about cures, but about prevention.
The history of vaccination peaked during the period of 1880s (rabies) to 1950s (polio). However smallpox vaccination started much earlier in Asia with clear documentation in China during the 16th century, and vaccination development continues today, especially with the efforts to prevent Malaria.