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Being 10 years old in 1900 was like being 50 years old today in terms of mortality risk

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David Bowie performs Young Americans on the Dick Cavett Show, December 4, 1974 (Luther Vandross is singing backup)

This is just one of many fun-filled numbers I’ve been playing around with. Here’s the reduction in annual mortality risk at various ages between 1900 and 2019:

At age 3, mortality risk has declined by 98.8%.

At age 10 (basically the age at which mortality risk in lowest, both then and now) mortality risk has declined by 96.6%

At age 20 it has declined 88.1%

At age 30 it has declined 84.3%

At age 80 it has declined 65%

In 1900 newborns had a projected risk of about 30% of dying before reaching their 20th birthday. Today that risk is approximately 1%. (Infant mortality alone was 16% in 1900. Today it’s about .5%).

Strikingly, while the vast majority of the decline in mortality risk among children and young adults between 1900 and today took place during the first half of the 20th century, the vast majority of the decline in the mortality risk of elderly people has taken place in more recent decades.

For example, while mortality risk for 3 and 10 year olds declined by 85% and 73% respectively between 1900 and 1940, mortality risk for 80 year olds declined by just 9% over those 40 years. It has declined 62% in the years since.

Here’s a really fun set of comparisons:

A 10 year old in 1900 had the same annual mortality risk as a 50 year old had in 2019.

A 30 year old in 1900 had the same annual mortality risk as a 60 year old had in 2019.

A 3 year old in 1900 had the same annual mortality risk as a 70 year old in 2019.

One striking counterexample to what is otherwise a remarkable story of constantly improving public health is something I mentioned yesterday: The mortality stats of Americans in the first decade of unambiguous adulthood (25-34). After enormous gains during the first half of the 20th century — mortality risk among this group declined by nearly 80% between 1900 and 1950 — progress stalled out, and mortality risk among the 25-34 demographic was overall flat between the early 1950s and the early 1970s. It then declined fairly gradually over the next 30 years, dropping a total of 35% between 1973 and 2004. Then it began to climb again, increasing by 26% between 2005 and 2019, before taking a huge single year jump in 2020 (24%).

This latter event had very little to do with COVID , at least directly, as only 3% of the deaths in this cohort were attributed to it.

The big drivers of increasing mortality among young adults over the past 15 years have been drug overdoses, homicide, and suicide, which together now account for about half the deaths in this cohort. The result is, that while mortality rates are down by more than 50% since the middle of the 20th century for everybody else, for young American adults they are currently the same as they were during the Truman administration.

Whether the big jump in 2020 is a one year blip, driven by pandemic-caused social conditions, remains to be seen. Rates were even higher in the first quarter of 2021, and the overall trend has been bad for 15 years now.

In any event, the increasing mortality rates of young American adults is something that hasn’t gotten much attention yet, but should.

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