The Legacy of Longevity: Persistent Inequalities in Life Expectancy 1500-2016

Charles Rahal , University of Oxford
Aaron Reeves, University of Oxford
Felix C. Tropf, University of Oxford

That global life expectancy has more than doubled within the previous two centuries is--by any objective standard--something miraculous to behold, and the academic literature across the fields of economics, demography, public health and evolutionary biology have all contributed to our understanding of the mechanisms behind the regional variations in the demographic transitions in mortality. We focus on the effect of the income differential on health gradients through the life expectancies of the tertiary universe of descendants of the British aristocracy and the general population. We use a dataset of 127,523 offspring up to three generations deep, meticulously curated from 7,161 individual sources including 6,756 instances of direct correspondence with aristocratic families. Using this unstructured free-text data on date of birth and death and information on the general population, we develop lifetable-based methodologies to provide five distinct findings. We first rail against the so called ‘peerage paradox': that lifespans between aristocrats (and their families) was equivalent to the general population until the turn of the 19th century. Secondly, the mortality transition of elites occurred around 100 years earlier than for the general public (with relative improvements of approximately 30% during the industrial revolution(s)). Thirdly, male aristocratic offspring fared comparatively less well during both the Great War and the Second World War, consistent with the existing evidence base. Fourthly, life expectancies equalized at the same time as the introduction of the National Health Service Act 1946. Finally, evidence suggests that this gap has, however, begun to re-emerge since the 1980s.

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 Presented in Session 13. Mortality and Longevity