Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/November 1888/The Prolongation of Human Life
|THE PROLONGATION OF HUMAN LIFE.|
IN order that one may live to near the limit in years of human life, must he inherit some peculiar qualities? Must he conform his habits to some set rules? Must he eat and drink certain things and abstain from certain others? Or, does it all depend upon a series of indeterminable accidents?
There have been many theories, and perhaps a pageful of facts, given to the world upon the subject during the past few centuries, but no thorough, systematic study of these questions has been made. All that we know about the things that seem to govern the length of man's life is what we have learned from limited observation and the small number of cases that have been imperfectly recorded in history or in medical works. It occurred to me that if accurate statistics could be collected about one thousand men and women, over eighty years of age, living in New England to-day, such information would form the basis of some very interesting and very valuable conclusions. In my position as associate editor of the "Boston Globe" I found this a comparatively easy task. I had five thousand blanks printed, asking for the following information in relation to men and women over eighty:
Name, residence, age, nationality; whether married or single; general description, including size, weight, complexion, etc.; children, how many, ages, state of health, etc.; habits, hours of rising, retiring, meals, exercise, etc.; occupations, past and present; food and drink, quantity, kind, etc.; attacks of sickness if any, and at what ages, nature of disease, etc.; condition of teeth, hair, beard, skin, etc., at time when seen by the correspondent; age at which father and mother died, and of grandfather and grandmother, whenever possible.
These blanks were sent to the representatives of the paper in all parts of New England, accompanied by a letter of explanation which cautioned them to be accurate rather than enterprising. More than three thousand five hundred of these blanks were filled out and returned in the course of two months, and the story that they tell I will try to give in outline.
Every county in Massachusetts, and nearly every county in the whole of New England, is represented in these returned blanks. Some of these old people live on the sea-coast, some on the lowlands of the Connecticut and its tributaries, some among the Berkshire Hills, White and Green Mountains, some upon the sands of Cape Cod, some among the pine-woods of Maine, and others in the manufacturing cities and towns. The canvass has not, of course, been complete, but it has been as complete in the cities as in the towns and on the farms, as complete in one section as in another, as complete among one class as among another. If these three thousand five hundred instances prove anything—and I think no one will dispute that they do—many of the commonly accepted theories would be overturned, and strange facts take their places.
In looking through these blanks, the first thing noticeable is that few of New England's old people have remained unmarried throughout life, the total being less than five per cent. The ratio of unmarried women to unmarried men is about three to one, and, taking married and single together, the women exceed the men by 251. In Massachusetts the list shows that the women exceed the men by 450; in the other States the men exceed the women. The great majority of both men and women have been married only once, usually in early life. The average number of children as a result of these unions is five, and those children now living are generally recorded in the blanks as healthy.
The fact that in Massachusetts, taking the whole population into account, the women exceed the men by several thousand, accounts in some degree for the greater number of old women, but not, certainly, for anything like half of the excess over the men. I attribute this excess to the fact that during the past half-century the bulk of the population of Massachusetts has been on the seaboard, and a large number of the men have been fishermen and mariners. Because of the great loss of life among this class, especially before the time of steamships and during the palmy days of the whale-fishery, the male population shrank in numbers below the normal level, this showing most strikingly in a list of old people.
Another very peculiar thing revealed by this canvass is the fact that five out of six of these New England old folks have a light complexion, with blue or gray eyes, and abundant brown hair. In stature the men are mostly tall and the women of medium height; in weight the men range from 100 to 160 pounds, with a few of 200 and over, and the women from 100 to 120, with exceptional cases of 180 and over. Throughout life the men have been bony and muscular, the women exactly opposite. The condition of the hair, teeth, beard, and skin of these old people at the time when the blanks were filled out was recorded in about 2,500 instances. In nearly all the hair remains thick, the teeth are very poor or entirely gone, the skin is only slightly wrinkled, and very few of the men wear any beard. In many instances the correspondents speak of the skin as being "fair, soft, smooth, and moist." One case is given, that of a man of eighty-nine, from whose mouth not a tooth has been lost. In most instances of those not over ninety the eye-sight is still good, and in dozens of cases it is pronounced "remarkably good."
Habits.—The information which the blanks give on the subject of habits coincides with the opinion of most people, formed from observation, that longevity without regularity of habits is rare. These old people, men and women alike, are put down as early risers and retirers, almost without exception, and fully nineteen out of every twenty have observed this custom throughout life, except perhaps at some short period in youth. Meals have been eaten regularly, three each day, with dinner at noon, the exceptions being so rare as to indicate nothing. Exercise in most cases has been hard work up to sixty-five or seventy, and after that period has consisted (when the regular occupation has been given up) of walking, gardening, or both. Except in cases of sickness these old people are as a rule as active and as fond of constant occupation of some sort to-day as most men and women are at thirty-five.
Occupations.—One of the most significant facts gathered in this canvass is that regarding occupations. Out of 1,000 men, throughout life 461 have been farmers; 92 have been carpenters; 70, merchants; 61, mariners; 49, laborers; 42, shoemakers; 41, manufacturers; 23, clergymen; 23, masons; 16, blacksmiths; 16, bankers; 12 each, iron-workers, mill-hands, physicians, and lawyers; and the rest are divided among nearly all the other trades and professions. The list includes only one each of the following: Hermit, hunter, chemist, professor, soldier, broker, auctioneer, jockey, contractor. Nearly all, however, began life upon the farm.
Eight hundred out of twelve hundred women have been farmers' wives, and all but about fifty of the remainder have been housewives. Four women only, all unmarried, have supported themselves through life by inherited wealth, and are now aged respectively eighty-two, eighty-three, eighty-six, and ninety. Three other unmarried women have been milliners, and six, one unmarried, have been dress-makers. Seven, two unmarried, have been nurses. Six, two unmarried, have been school-teachers.
Among the hundreds of remarkable instances which illustrate constancy of occupation cited by the correspondents are a few that I can not refrain from giving, because I believe that they point to a very important fact, and at the same time make most interesting reading:
Elijah Tolman, of Brockton, Mass., is eighty-five, and was a stage-driver for thirty years. For the past seven years he has worked in charge of a coal-office, and has been but one day from his duties in that time.
Andrew Stetson, of Duxbury, Mass., is ninety-five, and was constantly employed all his life making shoes until one year ago.
Aaron Farnham, of Cambridge, Mass., aged eighty-seven, sold Bibles in Vermont for seventy years.
Daniel Bigelow, of Athol, Mass., now eighty-seven, has worked as a farmer for seventy-seven years, and mowed grass with a scythe for seven tons of hay the past summer.
William E. Cook, of Portsmouth, R. I., is eighty-nine, a blacksmith, and still works in his shop six days each week.
Ira Chamberlain, of Bangor, Me., aged ninety-five, worked at the tailor's trade until his last birthday.
Thaddeus Rising, of Hatfield, Mass., is eighty, and works daily, as he has for the past sixty years, at his trade of whip-maker.
Mrs. Jane Huntress, of Augusta, Me., ninety-two years of age, still does her own cooking, washing, ironing, and garden-work. Since she was fifty-five she has earned the money for and built a fine house, going herself to the mill and selecting the lumber, and superintending the building operations. She is one of twelve children, all born without the aid of a physician.
Food—Drink—Stimulants.—The blanks tell one simple story, with so few variations as to be positively monotonous, in relation to the food eaten by these old people. The diet has been regular New England home-dishes of meat, vegetables, and pastry, with breakfast early, dinner at noon, and supper late. Very few are mentioned as small eaters or large eaters; most are mentioned as not particular, with good appetites through life. A half-dozen never eat meat, and two have abstained from water. More than two thirds have been habitual users of tea and coffee, and of the remainder nearly all have drunk tea. Few of the men, and none of the women, are given as users of more intoxicating beverages than cider, and not a dozen out of all have ever used liquors to excess. Ten of the women are mentioned as habitual smokers, and a score as snuff-takers. Of the men, a large majority have used tobacco—either chewing, smoking, or both. Most of the tobacco-users have been moderate, although numbers of cases are given where the amount consumed is enormous, and continued constantly up to the time when the census was taken. A few broke away from the habit after it had lasted for twenty, thirty, or fifty years, and have now been without the narcotic for perhaps a decade or more.
Sickness.—The record of sickness is so varied that scarcely half a dozen cases are alike out of the whole long list, except where there has been no illness other than the usual complaints of infancy.
Out of 1,049 men, 382 never were ill since early childhood; and of 880 women, 286 have enjoyed the same good health. One hundred and fourteen men and 171 women have had petty diseases only, and 495 men and 402 women have been seriously ill. The serious illness of the majority was a fever of some sort, typhoid heading the list. The other diseases are as numerous almost as the individuals afflicted, running from Asiatic cholera to shingles, and the attacks have been at all periods of life. As might be supposed, rheumatism is the most general complaint, usually in conjunction with other diseases. Locality seems to have had no influence on sickness, the same disorders appearing on high land and on low land, on dry land and on moist land, in the interior and by the sea-shore.
Parents and Children.—The average age reached by the parents and grandparents, taken together, of these old people was about sixty-five, and in few instances have both the father and mother or the grandfathers and grandmothers died under fifty, although in many cases—about twenty-five per cent—either the father or the mother has died before reaching this age. Not over one third of the children of these aged people have reached middle life, and about one half died either in infancy or before thirty, and about one fourth only are still living. The health of the latter, however, is in almost every instance put down as good. The blanks do not tell what would, perhaps, be a valuable thing—how many brothers and sisters the subjects had, and whether or not they died young; it appears, though, from the names, that few members of the same family have survived, unless it is supposed that the remaining members were older and have died, or enough younger to come under the eighty-year limit.
Some Conclusions.—Perhaps it is true that only an expert or a philosopher should draw conclusions. I pretend to be neither one nor the other, yet I think a familiarity with the facts gathered about these hundreds of old people will excuse anything on my part that might at first thought look like presumption. What I have tried to learn from this vast amount of information that has been collected about these examples of long life are these things:
What is the influence of the different occupations upon length of life?
Does the physical build of a person have anything to do with the length of his life?
Can one so regulate his habits of work, sleep, eating, drinking, use of stimulants and narcotics, and exercise, as to prolong life?
Is there such a thing as an inherited tendency to long or short life?
Few of the people accounted for by this census are employés, unless the housewives be called such, and in New England I certainly think they can not be. The occupation that claims most of the men is farming, which means dependence on circumstances and not on men. Of the men and women alike, throughout the list, they are the exceptions who have not been weighted with responsibilities, but responsibilities which, by being borne without intermission, have become fixed habit. The fact that so many of these old people are not employés, considered in conjunction with the fact that the great mass of mankind is made up of wageworkers, points toward a very important conclusion. It seems evident either that a man with the elements of long life within him is more independent in his nature or that a spirit of independence fostered for years tends to prolong existence. It needs no collection of statistics to prove that, in most cases, one who works during a long period for another has a weaker individuality than he who is an employer. The brain of the wage-worker may weigh and measure as much, and his physical strength may be as great, as his who takes the risk of profit and loss upon himself, but in New England, at least, his life is not so long as the average, and it is rare, as the statistics show, that he lives beyond the age of eighty. This result can not, certainly, be due in any considerable degree to amount of labor, to irregularity, or in any degree whatever to care—supposed to be so deadly in its effect—or to want of nourishing food.
I doubt also if any well-informed person will claim that sanitary conditions have any influence, certainly not if he knows as much as I do of the conditions under which the bulk of these people whom we are considering live.
Very few instances are given where occupations were changed except in the cases of the mariners, who have mostly become farmers in a small way. The life of nearly all these people has been what is usually considered a monotonous one, with regular hours of steady labor and moderately sure returns. Few appear to have taken many risks in life, and while most of them have carried more than the average New-Englander's share of mental and physical burdens, these burdens have been so evenly distributed throughout life that the strain has not been jerky. Surely the housewife has more cares than the woman who works in a shop or as a house-servant, and yet her cares are so similar day after day and year after year that they become easy to bear. So also with the farmer compared with the clerk or mill-hand. Few in all the list have been either more or less than moderately successful—successful above the average, to be sure, but they have achieved neither notoriety nor wealth. They have, in fact, been placed above the wasting worry of want, and have, on the other hand, escaped the softening of the tissues and aimlessness of purpose that generally accompany wealth easily and rapidly obtained.
I have alluded to the fact that in the subjects of the census the complexion in most instances is light. While this may be due to the northern origin of the majority of New England people, and have no special bearing upon the subject of longevity, it may possibly be very important as showing the effect of temperament upon the length of life. That the sanguine temperament predominates in these people is undoubtedly a fact, and it appears that the sanguine-nervous (judged from complexion, color of the eyes, and general build) is most common. In theory, certainly, this temperament is that which would most conduce to longevity. Other facts, of the nature of these gathered in New England, from some other locality, might offset these and disprove the theory; but, until these other facts are gathered, I think the theory that people with nervous-sanguine temperaments, and the two nicely blended, are liable to live longer than those who possess a nervous-bilious or a bilious-lymphatic temperament, with either predominating, is strong enough to work with; and, while it does not directly teach us how to live longer, it points to something in the future that means a great deal to the human race.
The fact that the majority of the men are bony and muscular, and the women plump, is easily explained, I think, by the occupations. In the work of the men their muscles have been brought into play so much, and have used such a large proportion of the nourishment taken into the system, that fat could not accumulate. With the women the reverse has been true, especially after they reached the age of fifty, when grown-up daughters took the hardest of the work from their mothers' shoulders.
In regard to food, the evidence is so uniformly one way that those who advise a simple diet, and those who cry out against meat, must either hold their theories to be above facts or give them up. There is certainly nothing "simple" about the diet of a New England farmer. It consists of salt and fresh pork and beef and all sorts of common fish and vegetables, almost always poorly cooked, and pies and cakes of the most indigestible sorts. The food is "plain," truly, and gives the digestive organs an abundance of work to do, but it is not such food as a theorist would recommend to one who desired to live near up to the century-mark. Tea and coffee have certainly proved that they do not tend to shorten life, even if they do not prove that they help to prolong it. The generally accepted theory in relation to stimulants, that in excess they are not life-sustaining, receives strong support. Tobacco appears to prove itself harmless, at least on the temperament of these people. Whether it be a help to live long requires other evidence.
While the farmers of New England and their wives are a cleanly people, they are not much given to bathing. This neglect may not have prolonged their existence or made them more healthy, but it is to be presumed that it has not cut off many years or caused much disease. Neither are the members of these households well informed in relation to sanitary matters. They know little of the unseen dampness to which the human system is so constantly exposed, and, knowing little, care little. May not this be an influence in favor of a prolonged existence, paradoxical as the supposition may seem? In Hingham, Mass., with only four thousand inhabitants, there are eighty people over eighty years of age, and out of these seventy-five are of light complexion. In no other town in New England, so far as could be learned, is there such a proportion of old people. This town is on the sea-coast, lies very low, is without sewers, and has only recently put in a system of water-works. From a sanitary point of view the conditions here are about as unfavorable to long life as could be conceived outside the crowded portions of the large cities. And in Boston, where the sanitary conditions appear to be the worst—in the North End and South Boston districts—the greatest number of very old people are found.
From the hours of retiring and rising given I judge the average length of sleep to be about eight hours, with few exceptions. Regularity in hours of work, eating, sleeping, and everything in fact, seems to have been rigidly observed. But is not this more the result of the temperament than the cause of long life? Is not the nervous-sanguine temperament more than any other like a balance-wheel or the pendulum of a clock? Is it not, after all, the great regulator of which the habits of these people are a manifestation, and to which is due their long life? And is it not something more than a regulator; is it not a repairer of waste and decay, a remedy more potent than any drug? I will not presume to answer these questions, for some of my more learned medical friends should be much better able to do so in spite of these new facts which I have.
Without more accurate and more complete information in relation to the ages of the parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and the brothers and sisters of these people in question, it is very difficult to make any deductions pertaining to hereditary longevity. Out of all the statistics that have been gathered there are none which are full or accurate enough to base any theory upon, other than that a tendency to long life may be transmitted from parents to children. To gather the necessary statistics in relation to, say, one thousand people, from eighty to ninety, would be extremely difficult, but it must be done before scientific thinkers can make deductions.
In order to mention all of the really remarkable things shown by this collection of facts, I should be obliged to make a serial of this article. I have tried to mention those only which seemed most interesting and important. One thing, to me, seems to stand out above all others: that a strong vital principle, manifested outwardly by firm build and constant activity, has been the chief cause of the advanced age of these people. Given a certain organization of mind and body, I think that a man may count on long life—always barring accidents—with reasonable certainty. Such an organization need not be put under any particular conditions of life; it will seek them out for itself, as a plant seeks out in the earth and the air such elements as aid its development. There is no reason that science can see why a raven should live longer than a snipe, but there is a reason, nevertheless: so we can see no reason why a tall, bony, muscular, light-skinned farmer should live longer than a short, stout, dark-skinned clerk; but I believe there is one, and one that science may some day discover.
I have one suggestion to make: that our national Government, when it takes the next general census, include in its statistics information about all the people in the United States above ninety, the kind of information to be determined beforehand by the most eminent physicians and scientific men generally in this country or in the world. I believe that such information would be of more value to the world, after having been properly digested, than all the facts about the manufacture of cotton cloth, the raising of tobacco, the production of whisky, etc., that could be collected in a century. For do we not all desire to live long?