Longevity is on my mind, but not just because this is my birth month. With a family history that shows both longevity past 100 and life-stealing cancer at early ages, I've long pondered that ageless question: How long will I live?
To maintain balance, I listen to the wise words of such thinkers as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who advised, "The quality, not the longevity, of one's life is what is important."
Still, we all wonder how long we will walk this Earth, and statistics have given us considerable food for thought since the early 20th century. Before that time, until medical advances offered extended lives, deciphering longevity wasn't so important. Day-to-day survival was.
A keyword search for "life expectancy" in this newspaper, which has existed since 1884, affirms that. Digital searches are an imperfect science, but the first use of the term I found is from a century ago, in April 1917:
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"According to the public health service, life expectancy during infancy and childhood has increased because of the more intelligent care of babies and young children, but life expectancy after the age of 40 is less now than it was 30 years ago because those who have arrived at years of discretion do not exercise discretion for themselves and take sufficient exercise to overcome modern conditions. Many more people are engaged in sedentary occupations than formerly, which deprives them of natural assistance afforded by physical exercise...."
Such admonitions haven't changed much, have they?
How bean counters came up with longevity statistics before good record-keeping is debatable, but in the stone-tool Neolithic era, life expectancy is thought to have ranged from 20 to 33 years. The Bronze Age, when war and violence reigned, averaged 26 years.
Speed ahead to Classical Rome, a time when art and philosophy held cultural sway, and life expectancy was 20 to 30 years, occasionally as much as 47 years.
When we became a country, the American life expectancy was 35 years, and by 1900 it grew to 47 years, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, which keeps such records for us and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The latter hints that longevity can be related to health care.
By the mid-20th century, our odds at living longer had improved, even in Mississippi. The Daily Herald, the early incarnation of this newspaper, reported at the end of 1955 that "expectation of life at birth" in Mississippi was 66.3 years for males and 72.6 years for females.
National averages that same year were 66.3 for males and 72 for females. Wow! Mississippi was on even keel with the rest of our nation. Sadly, it hasn't stayed that way.
This month a new study shows America's poorest have shorter lifespans than the wealthiest. That gap is growing, according to the report pulled from IRS and Social Security records.
Perhaps it's not so surprising that the bigger your paycheck the longger your life expectancy, but as in all such studies, this one raises ponderables. A poor person in expensive New York City, for example, is likely to live longer than a poor person in more-affordable Yazoo City.
In case you didn't know, Mississippi is at the bottom of another list. The current life expectancy in Mississippi is 74.96 years, the lowest in the U.S. The highest state is Hawaii at age 81.3 and the overall U.S. average is 78.7 years, almost four more years than Mississippians get. The worldwide average is 71 with the high in Japan at 84 and the low in Sierra Leone at 46.
The caveat to these and similar studies is that they reflect averages. Women historically live longer than men, and other averages can be blown to smithereens by exceptions, including monetary worth.
In the lyrical observation of George Strait:
"There's no way of knowing what tomorrow brings.
"Life's too short to waste it; I say bring on anything."
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or c/o Sun Herald Newsroom, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi, MS 39535-4567.