Longevity has been rising in Canada decade by decade: from age 60 in 1920 to 81 in the most recent census.
In 1926, one newborn out of 10 passed away in the first year of life. It is now 5.6 out of a thousand, a twenty-fold improvement in less than a century.
But to be able to really appreciate our good fortune, let me provide a picture of the past, starting in a time when there was no Canada.
One hundred eighty-six skeletal remains were found in a Moroccan cave. They proved to be 40,000 years old. Only 20 per cent of this population reached age 50.
In ancient Rome, less than 10 per cent of the population survived that long. Life was only a little better in Paris, London and Berlin during the eighteenth century.
In contrast, 85 per cent of Japanese people are living to age 50 today.
Athens lost a quarter of its army to an epidemic in 430 BC and subsequently lost its war with Sparta.
China’s population grew slowly from 58 million in 2 AD to 123 million a thousand years later, only to fall to 65 million because of war with the Mongols and the effects of bubonic plague.
Until the 17th century, repeated outbreaks killed up to a half of some European cities’ populations. Deaths in battle during the wars of the 18th and 19th centuries were far less numerous than deaths from infectious diseases.
The people of central Mexico shrunk to five per cent of their original numbers after the introduction of smallpox and measles by Spanish invaders.
In 1798, Edward Jenner, an English doctor, noticed that milkmaids never contracted smallpox. Vaccination with cowpox to provide immunity to smallpox rapidly followed.
In 1854, another English doctor, John Snow, discovered that cases of cholera were associated with a source of drinking water contaminated by excrement. Gradually cities began to install public sewer and water systems, flushing waste away and delivering water into houses under pressure.
Consequently, one of the major causes of infant mortality essentially disappeared in the developed world. By 1900, for the first time in history, cities could maintain their population and grow without migration from the countryside.
By 1893, there was a vaccine against cholera; by 1896, a vaccine for typhoid fever; heating of milk to prevent milk-born infections; by 1912, the role of lice in clothing was identified in spreading typhus; by 1937, there was a vaccine for yellow fever.
The liberal use of insecticides to combat mosquitoes after the Second World War dramatically decreased the burden of malaria. In 1976, the World Health Organization eliminated smallpox from our planet.
In the context of the history of humanity, 20th and 21st Century increases in life expectancies in many countries are, frankly, amazing.
The chances of survival have improved owing to the virtual eradication of infant mortality, improved nutrition and living conditions, control of infectious diseases and, to a lesser degree, improved medical therapy for the diseases of old age.
We have a lot to celebrate.
Dr. Peter Zalan is president of the medical staff at Health Sciences North. His monthly column tackles issues in health care from a local perspective.
Posted by Vivian Scinto