Thursday, November 1, 2012

Dia de los Muertos: Life expectancy trends

Historic New England cemeteries are a bit different than cemeteries in many other states in the U.S. in that they were often family plots, on local farms or homesteads, and not in a church yard.
Early Puritans rejected churchyard burials as they rebelled against other "papist" practices, as heretical and idolatrous. Instead, many 17th century New England towns set aside land as common community burial grounds. Headstone images from this period also reflect the rejection of formal Christian iconography in favor of more secular figures, such as skulls representing fate common to all men.
Source: National Park Service
As a result, a hiker often stumbles across tombstones on a typical trek in southern New England. These tiny graveyards provide a tangible record of the region's demographic history.

One of the most striking details, aside from the sizable share of persons who passed away before their fortieth birthday, was that so many tombstones were marked in years and months. In some cases, life was marked in years, months, and days.
Aged 23 years 10 months & 25 days
This is clear physical evidence of a phenomenon clearly understood by demographers: life expectancy was short at the turn of the last century.

There is, too, the startling reminder of high infant mortality in the 1900s New England. One in ten children did not survive to reach their first birthday.
Infant: age 3 months & 3 days
Pregnancy was also a dangerous condition. According to the CDC, "For every 1000 live births, six to nine women in the United States died of pregnancy-related complications." Today those trends have been sharply reversed. Across most populations infant mortality claims fewer than 7 deaths per 1,000 live births, and maternal mortality has declined to 0.1 per 1,000 life births.

But despite these dark statistics, the gravestones mark the longevity of many people who buck the trend.

Demographically speaking, life expectancy is just an average. Some people live far longer, and some much shorter. But the real life outliers are always a pleasant surprise.
Age 74 years 4 months & 20 days
Here is the life-expectancy data behind the anecdotal, archaeological evidence:
*Note: Data for 2010 reflect published 2009 statistics
To ensure comparable data over time, the chart above shows life expectancy for white males and for white females, at birth, from 1900 - present. Life expectancy in 1900 was lower than 50 years for whites, both men and women in the United States. Available evidence suggests that life expectancy was even shorter for minority populations (approximately 32 years of age for black men, and 33 for black women in 1900).

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