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How Humans Died Last Century

September 2004

By William Faloon

LE Magazine September 2004

How Humans Died Last Century
William Faloon

Most people fail to realize how far medicine has progressed in a remarkably brief period of human history.

For instance, the three leading causes of death in 1900 were pneumonia, tuberculosis, and diarrhea.1 During the first four decades of the twentieth century, bacterial infections ravaged human populations of all ages. Diphtheria, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, scarlet fever, syphilis, staphylococcus, and a host of enteric pathogens were the epidemic killers of the day. By 1946, these diseases were largely brought under control with the advent of antibiotics, improvements in hygiene, and other antimicrobial therapies.

The three leading killers today are heart disease, cancer, and stroke.2 Pneumonia still claims the lives of elderly people with weakened immune systems, but the bacterial infections that caused so many people to perish from pneumonia were eradicated long ago. In less than 65 years, science has turned the death tables upside down to the extent that the major threat now facing health-conscious people is aging and its accompanying diseases.

The average life expectancy in 1900 was 47.3 years. In 1993, it was 75.7 years.
SOURCE: ODC, National Center for Health Statistics. In 1900, deaths from other causes accounted
for almost 30% of total deaths; in 1996, deaths from other causes accounted for about 20% of total deaths.

Critics of our objectives to radically extend the healthy human life span contend that it is not possible to gain control over aging. Some pessimists even say that cancer may never be cured. We at Life Extension disagree with these cynics who fail to appreciate how far health care has advanced over the past seven decades.

Considering the scientific discoveries that have occurred in recent years, it would appear that both cancer and aging will become controllable diseases long before this century ends. The problem is that most people reading this are likely to die before then.3

We Cannot Forget the Past
To educate more people about how close we may be to eliminating pathological aging as a consequence of human maturation, it is useful to look back just a few generations to see how hopeless the prospects for living a long and healthy life appeared to be then.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, life expectancy at birth was only 47.3 years. In 1900, fewer than 60% of women lived to the age of 50; today, 95% of women can expect to reach at least the age of 50.4

Cancer Used to Be a Death Sentence
We at Life Extension have been highly critical of the medical establishment’s failure to discover more cures for cancer. For many cancers, the mortality rate has not changed much since 1950 and obvious ways to reform today’s broken system have not been implemented.

Despite the many failings we have identified, far more cancer patients are surviving than ever before. Although many of these victims suffer lifelong debilitation from the treatments used to cure their cancer, there has been undeniable progress in many areas of oncology.

In the 1930s, only one of five cancer patients survived five or more years. During the 1940s, the five-year survival rate improved to one of four patients. In the 1960s, one of three survived. Today, 64% of cancer patients survive for five years or more.5

The cancer establishment can brag about these statistics, but we at Life Extension will continue to fight for the lives of cancer victims who are not being effectively treated. One overlooked problem is that despite improved survival rates, cancer deaths continue to mount. While 143 people per 100,000 died of cancer in 1930, today the figure is nearly 180 per 100,000.5 Much of this increase is due to increased life expectancy (cancer incidence increases with age) and smoking-related cancers.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death after heart disease in the US, but it is the major cause of death in women between the ages of 35 and 74. In children under the age of 15, cancer trails only accidents as the leading cause of death.5 If current trends continue, cancer is expected to be the leading cause of death in the US by 2010. It is because of these worrisome trends that we at Life Extension believe that finding a cure for cancer should be a national priority.

Staggeringly High Childhood Mortality
If you visit any old cemetery, you might be surprised to see how large the “babyland” sections are. That is because infants and children used to die at dreadfully high rates.

In the pre-vaccination era, pertussis (whooping cough) was a leading cause of infant death. The number of cases of pertussis dropped by more than 99% between the 1930s and 1970s (though an increase occurred in the US and Europe during the 1980s and 1990s).7

In 1900, 30.4% of all deaths occurred among children less than five years of age. By 1997, that percentage was only 1.4%. These remarkable improvements in saving children’s lives occurred because of improvements in sanitation and hygiene, the discovery of antibiotics, and the implementation of vaccination programs. Scientific advances played a major role in each of these areas.8


In Australia during the early 1900s, the leading causes of death were infectious and parasitic diseases. For example, in 1907, infectious and parasitic diseases caused 25% of all deaths. By 2002, only about 1% of Australians succumbed to these illnesses.9

Deaths from circulatory disease increased from about 15% of all deaths in 1907 to nearly 40% in 2002. Cancer rates rose even more sharply, from 7% of all deaths in 1907 to about 30% in 2002.9

In less than 100 years, the reasons why people die have completely changed.

We at Life Extension would like to see the same commitment aimed at saving the lives of adults. Critics of our ambitious research programs state that it is “natural” for people to succumb to illness as they age. Our rebuttal is that it was perfectly “natural” in 1900 for infants and children to die at a rate 21 times greater than they do today! The reduction in mortality for children and infants is irrefutable proof that the lethal forces of nature can be overcome by scientific innovation.

Life Extension has long advo-cated that a medical research “Manhattan Project” be established to find cures for the diseases of aging and aging itself within the next 17 years. Our organization currently funds almost $5 million of scientific research each year.

Dying from Acute Vitamin Deficiencies
It is hard to imagine that only 65 years ago, thousands of Americans died each year from diseases such as pellagra (niacin deficiency), beriberi (thiamine deficiency), rickets (vitamin D deficiency), and scurvy (vitamin C deficiency).

As many as 3,000 deaths were attributed to pellagra and hundreds of children died from rickets each year as late as 1938. Over 40% of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration was deficient in riboflavin (vitamin B2) and over 20% of preschool children had rickets. These diseases were common and malnutrition was typically a result of not enough food.10

Today, people die of chronic nutrient deficiencies caused by less-than-optimal intake of a wide variety of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. Thousands of published studies indicate that many of today’s lethal diseases could be prevented if people consumed more than the minimal daily intakes established by the federal government. Yet approximately 40% of the US population takes no dietary supplements, resulting in an epidemic of chronic nutrient deficiency states.11


”During the busiest time of the year in 1933, every pair of skilled hands was needed to stop every kind of infectious disease [from] spreading, even within the hospital. Scarlet fever continued to be the greatest concern of the hospital staff; year after year, nothing seemed to stop the spread of this disease. Around the same time, four cases of diphtheria were admitted; one young woman who was admitted was in a highly toxic state, and despite all the medical help, she only lived another hour.

A few months later, eight further cases of diphtheria were also to be admitted into the hospital, three of which required a tracheotomy. All the permanent staff, from nurses to ward maids, were tested for diphtheria; one gave a positive reaction and received treatment. Another two members of staff were immunized against this awful disease. Scarlet fever seemed at times untreatable, and since the isolation hospital opened, it had admitted more scarlet fever patients than [for] any other disease. Throughout the year of 1934, the scarlet fever put so much pressure on the hospital, it pulled into question, did the isolation hospital need an extension to cope?”12