Celebrating 116 Years of Life, and American Medicine

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Life expectancy via Shutterstock Life expectancy via Shutterstock

Yesterday, I wrote about some ordinary, middle-aged Americans whose lives were tragically cut short while participating in triathlons. Today, however, in an interesting and timely twist, I'm suggesting that we pause to celebrate the life of another ordinary American, but one whose time with us did not have a premature ending. Not even close. In fact, it was a life of such length that it exceeded every expectation imaginable, both at her birth and death — and in that respect she was not ordinary at all.

In her 116 years, Susannah Mushatt Jones, who passed away after a brief illness in Brooklyn, N.Y. on May 12, lived though an extraordinary period in American medicine, one which we should all take a moment to appreciate. And not only was Ms. Jones the oldest living American at the time of her passing, the Montgomery, Alabama native had held the title of Oldest Person on Earth, according to Guinness World Records and Robert Young from the Gerontology Research Group, which maintains a list of the world's oldest individuals.

With that, let's take a moment to consider the progress made in the name of public health, beginning with longevity.

Just months after Ms. Jones' was born on July 6, 1899, life expectancy for all Americans at birth -- which included both sexes and all races — was 47.3 years. But for African American females like herself, it was a just 33.5 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Fast forward to 2014, and those figures were 78.8 years for all Americans, and 81.2 years for females. So obviously, not only did Ms. Jones far exceed the lifespan expectations of her time, she lived another 83 years — or the equivalent of nearly three extra lifetimes.

State of Alabama, 1899, via Shutterstock State of Alabama, 1899, via Shutterstock

How the woman, who was one of 11 children, managed to live 116 years, 10 months and 6 days, well that's another story. She reportedly "ate fresh fruits and vegetables that she picked herself," and relatives said "they credited her long life to love of family and generosity to others." But that's neither here nor there, and determining her secret of spectacular longevity is not my point.

In addition to longevity, advances in medicine and disease eradication have also been nothing short of remarkable. As noted by the American Council's late president, Elizabeth Whelan, who engaged in a retrospective piece similar to this, here were her observations from a 2004 article she wrote celebrating her mother's 90th birthday:

"Dramatic changes in public health policy and practice occurred in her lifetime: widespread vaccinations, control of infectious disease, fluoridation and chlorination of drinking water, safer sewage disposal and water treatment, a dramatic decline in food-borne diseases (mainly controlled by refrigeration), hand-washing, sanitation, and pasteurization," wrote Dr. Whelan. "Back then, lack of essential nutrients caused nutritional deficiency diseases such as goiter, rickets, beriberi, and pellagra — diseases which have since essentially disappeared in the West."

Of course, there are many reasons for the significant rise in life expectancy over the 20th century. They include declines in deaths from cancer, heart disease, stroke, lower respiratory disease, diabetes, flu and pneumonia. And as smoking rates for middle-aged Americans continue to decline over time, researchers believe that life expectancy will continue to increase. Adding exercise to one's weekly routine will also help the rise, as will halting our all-too-frequent tendency to sit for prolonged periods.

So as our 21st-century nation bids farewell to its oldest living citizen -- prior to her death she was the very last American alive born in the 19th century -- it's worth celebrating how far medical science has taken us, and from a public health standpoint how better off we all are as compared to our not-too-distant ancestors.