Genealogy: Ancestral longevity and income disparities

I’ve long known that one side of my family has notable longevity. A number of relatives on that side have lived into their 90’s and 100’s.

The other side of my family……well, not so much.

Years of genealogical research means that I now have ancestral data going back to the 1700’s. Using that data, I recently undertook a data analysis of ancestral longevity. I tabulated the age of death for direct ancestors – parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc., going back to my 6th great-grandparents on both my mother’s side and father’s side – for whom I have both birth-year and death-year data. I didn’t tabulate aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. – only parents, their parents, their parents, etc.

I tabulated the age of death for the direct ancestors for whom I have this data – 35 males and 33 females. Caveat – this is a small data sample for statisical calculations. For me, it’s my data sample.

Demographically, there are broad variations between my paternal vs. maternal ancestors. Ancestors on one side came to North America from Europe as early as the 1600-1700’s, many on the other side came to North America later. One side came largely from Continental Europe – Germany and France, while the other side largely came from the UK and Ireland. One side of the family is largely Protestant, the other side is largely Catholic. Both sides have clusters of relatives with various medical illnesses that are transmissable from generation to generation and can result in early deaths. Both sides have ancestors who died young, middle age, and in old age.

Setting aside the broad demographic observations listed above, there is one striking observation about longevity (or lack thereof) among my direct ancestors. On both sides, the average age of death for men and women is within one year of the average of death for the other gender. However, the mean (average) ages of death – collectively – between the two sides of my family are contrasted by a difference of eleven years for men on one side vs. the other, a difference of thirteen years for women. The mean average age of death on one side is 59 years old for women, 60 years old for men; on the other side, the mean average age of death is 72 for women, 71 for men. There is one clear demographic correlating to average ages of death – the ancestors who were predominately middle class (and somewhat more often urban and professional as measured by the time in which they lived) lived an average of more than a decade longer than the other side of my ancestors who were more often of a lower income bracket and more often employed as laborers.

This is in keeping with studies published looking at socioeconomic studies and lifespans. For example:

  • A multi-country study published in 2017 in The Lancet found “Low socioeconomic status is linked to significant reductions in life expectancy and should be considered a major risk factor for ill health and early death in national and global health policies, according to a study of 1.7 million people published by The Lancet. The study, using data from the UK, France, Switzerland, Portugal, Italy, USA and Australia, is the first to compare the impact of low socioeconomic status with other major risk factors on health, such as physical inactivity, smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and high alcohol intake…..When compared with their wealthier counterparts, people with low socioeconomic status were almost 1.5 times (46%) more likely to die before they were 85 years old. Among people with low socioeconomic status, 55,600 (15.2% of men and 9.4% of women) died before the age of 85, compared with 25,452 (11.5% of men and 6.8% of women) of people with high socioeconomic status.”
  • A study published by the U.S. National Institute of Health (NIH) in 2016 indicated that for the years 2001 – 2014 in the U.S. that “….higher income was associated with greater longevity throughout the income distribution. The gap in life expectancy between the richest 1% and poorest 1% of individuals was 14.6 years (95% CI, 14.4 to 14.8 years) for men and 10.1 years (95% CI, 9.9 to 10.3 years) for women.” Read that study’s findings here.
  • Another study published in 2019 by Drexel University found that “A study of 6 million people found a strong link between socioeconomic status (SES) and life expectancy among a population with universal healthcare. Men and women in the lowest SES group had 12 and 9 years’ lower life expectancy respectively, than those in the highest SES group of the same age. The study also found that the lower the SES, the higher odds of death, independent of age and sex.” Read the findings here.

Kim Burkhardt is a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists (see: APGen). Learn more about Ms. Burkhardt’s “out of obscurity” genealogy services and Women of Yesteryear books here.

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