Thursday, April 07, 2005

The wall

posted by Chet at 11:52 AM UTC

Here is a graph from Arthur Imhof's Lost Worlds: How Our European Ancestors Coped with Everyday Life and Why Life Is So Hard Today. It shows the number of deaths in the German parish of Dorotheenstadt during the years 1715-1875 as a function of the age of death.

What is striking about the graph is the wall of deaths at the very beginning of life -- one-third of all newborns died in the first year of life, one-half by age 8 --followed by a rather flat carpet of deaths stretching out to age 80 and beyond.

A similar graph for a developed country today would be almost exactly reversed: a relatively flat carpet of deaths from birth to age 75 or so, with a wall of deaths at the end of life.

There may be no more significant change in the way we live than this: the wall behind vs. the wall ahead. That transformation, of course, was due to scientific medicine and sanitation, in particular the introduction of smallpox vaccination at the beginning of the 19th century and the amelioration of gastrointestinal diseases throughout that century.

The lucky ones got over the wall at the beginning. No one gets over the wall at the end. Yet.

Sometime before the end of the present century, scientists may discover and eliminate the causes of senescence, the decay of old age. Then the graph will become a flat carpet of death by disease, violence and accident stretching from birth into the indefinite future.