By Tim Lambert
We do not know exactly what average life expectancy at birth was in the past (before the 19th century we can only give rough estimates). However historians think it was about 35 years in the Middle Ages or the 16th Century. (So 50% of the people born reached that age). However that does not mean that people dropped dead when they reached 35! Average life expectancy at birth was around 35 but a great many of the people born died in childhood. We don't know exactly what percentage died but if we say about 25% of people died before they were 5 years old we are probably not wide of the mark. Perhaps as many as 40% died before they reached adulthood. However if you could survive childhood and your teenage years you had a good chance of living to your 50s or your early 60s and even in the Middle Ages in Western Europe there were some people who lived to 70 or 80.
Things improved in the 18th century in Britain. Life expectancy at birth rose to about 40 by the late 18th century. Nobody is sure why. Plague died out, which must have helped. (The last outbreak of plague in Western Europe was in Marseilles in 1720). Furthermore in the 18th century eating potatoes became common, which probably improved nutrition. Improvements in 18th century agriculture may also have helped.
Life expectancy rose further in Britain in the late 19th century. By 1900 in Britain it was about 47 for a man and about 50 for a woman. (That does not mean of course that people dropped dead in their late forties. The figures are skewed because death in childhood was still common in the early 20th century. That affected the average figure.) During the late 19th century living standards rose substantially and most people were better nourished. There were also huge improvements in public health with sewers being dug under cities and clean water supplies created.
Things continued to improve in Britain in the early 20th century. In particular death in childhood became far less common and by the early 1930s life expectancy for a man at birth was about 60. By the 1950s it had risen to about 65. Things improved more slowly in the late 20th century but by 1971 life expectancy for a man in Britain was 68. For a woman it was 72. Today life expectancy at birth is 77 for a man in the UK and 81 for a woman.
A history of Medicine
A history of Surgery
A history of the Population of England
A history of Public Health in Britain
A history of Plague
Last revised 2012