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Digital Subscriptions > Family Tree > Family Tree July 2018 > Exploring ancestors’ ages

Exploring ancestors’ ages

Don’t assume your ancestors all married and died young – Dr Edward Dutton has some surprising news…
An 18th-century allegory of the ages of man, represented in a step scheme, with the Divine judgment under the stairs

We tend to assume that the further back we go in our family history the more likely people are to ‘live fast and die young’. With life increasingly precarious, our ancestors will have children younger and, surely, they’ll die younger. So, it may come as a shock, as you delve into your various lines, to discover that it’s not like that at all.

Life expectancy

You will often find that late Victorian ancestors didn’t live as long as mid- Victorian ones. In fact, if you factor out infant mortality – tragically high among the Victorians – then the life expectancy in 1870 was roughly the same as ours is now. Male life expectancy aged 65 was 10 years (75) compared to 13 years today (79). However, by 1900, it had fallen to just three years (68). And according to the Office of National Statistics, male longevity aged 65 reached a peak in about 1945, of roughly 12 years. It did not return to this peak until circa 1979.

In my own family history, this pattern holds with almost complete consistency. My great-grandfathers, born between 1885 and 1896, died aged 57, 67, 65 and 66. However, their fathers died, respectively, at 69, 77, 79, and 56. With one exception, they not only lived longer than their sons but lived over a decade longer. Their own fathers, however, generally did not live as long as them: 47, 74, 44, and 72.

Diet & lifestyle

According to nutritionist Dr Paul Clayton, the reason is simple: ‘The British diet deteriorated very significantly after about 1895…This is why the generation that were born in 1878-1890 experienced a decline in health and life expectancy.’

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About Family Tree

Join us as we celebrate the mothers, grandmothers, aunts and more on your family tree. It's vital to research the female ancestors, otherwise you're only learning half of your family history. This issue we have plenty to help and inspire your research into women's history and so gain a fuller understanding of your family members and their lives in times gone by.