Life Expectancy Versus Life Span

Life expectancy is often confused with life span to the point that they are nearly synonyms; when people hear 'life expectancy was 35 years' they often interpret this as meaning that people of that time or place had short life spans. One such example can be seen in the ''In Search of...'' episode "The Man Who Would Not Die" (About Count of St. Germain) where it is stated "Evidence recently discovered in the British Museum indicates that St. Germain may have well been the long lost third son of Rákóczi born in Transylvania in 1694. If he died in Germany in 1784, he lived 90 years. The average life expectancy in the 18th century was 35 years. Fifty was a ripe old age. ''Ninety''... was forever."

This ignores the fact that the life expectancy generally quoted is the ''at birth'' number which is an ''average'' that includes all the babies that die before their first year of life as well as people that die from disease and war. In fact, there are examples of people living far beyond the life expectancy of their time such as Democritus, Socrates, Roman emperor Augustus, Saint Anthony, Michelangelo, and Ben Franklin.

It can be argued that it is better to compare life expectancies of the period after adulthood to get a better handle on life span. Even during childhood life expectancy can take a huge jump as seen in the Roman Life Expectancy table at the University of Texas where ''at birth'' the life expectancy was 25 but at the age of 5 it jumped to 48. Studies like Plymouth Plantation; "Dead at Forty" and Life Expectancy by Age, 1850–2004 similarly show a dramatic increase in life expectancy once adulthood was reached.

Further Reading


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