A History of Life Expectancy

By Tim Lambert

Life Expectancy Before the Industrial Revolution

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. However, that does not mean that people died when they reached 35! The average life expectancy 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, some people 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. The 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 in Britain in the 19th Century

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.

Life Expectancy in Britain in Modern Times

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. In 2015 life expectancy was 79 for a man in the UK and 83 for a woman.

Last revised 2024