Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Fountain of Youth

[Vivian Grace (Jenner) Pellman (1887-1973)]

Every so often my genealogical research makes me stop and think. As my family tree began to sprout more branches, I noticed a pattern emerging that gave me one such pause: a lot of my ancestors lived much longer than I would have expected. With all the recent debate and uproar over health care and health care reform, it has made me re-examine not just my thinking, but my lifestyle.

To fully understand how significant this was to me, you have to know that about six years ago I was diagnosed as a Type 2 diabetic. My doctor also informed me that I had numerous risk factors for coronary artery disease and pretty much led me to believe that I might keel over at any moment from a heart attack or stroke -- especially if I didn't choke down about a dozen pills a day and dramatically alter my eating and exercise habits. It was after I had been on this regimen about three years -- off and on, at least -- that I began to notice the longevity of my ancestors.

As I traced the various branches of my family and dutifully recorded their birth and death dates, I saw that my father, John A. Pellman (1920-2001) had lived over 81 years, my grandfather, John Guss Pellman (1891-1970) had lived 79 years, George Frederick Pellman (1868-1943) 75 years, William Henry Pellman (1827-1901) 73 years. And these weren't people who had lived lives of luxury and pampering. My father suffered from tuberculosis as a child, and endured the Great Depression and the Second World War. My grandfather had grown up in a frontier town, served in World War I, and suffered through the Great Depression. His father had been the son of a sharecropper and a frontier lawman. And his father was a tenant farmer who had fought three years of civil warfare in Prussia, another three years in the Civil War (see The Ravages of War), and entered the Oklahoma Land Rush at the age of 68.

At first I was tempted to conclude that the Pellmans were simply hardy stock ... until I noticed that the same was true of the Jenner side of my family. My grandmother, Vivian Grace Jenner (1887-1973), who is pictured above, had lived 86 years. Her father, Almond Lewis Jenner (1863-1946) 83 years. His father, Moses German Jenner (1833-1907) 74 years. And so on, back to Samuel Jenner I (c. 1650-1738) who lived at least 85 years during colonial times!

This just didn't make sense. I had always been told that average life expectancy prior to the 20th century was about 40 years, yet most of my ancestors had lived nearly double that. And the same was true of every other branch of my family. With rare exception, the men were living 75 or more years -- even in the 16th century and earlier. But, I soon noticed the same was not true of the women in my family. True, many lived well into their 70s and 80s, like Hannah Hinman (1666-1743), Hannah Parmelee (1706-1780), and Mercy Lewis (1679-1761). But many others died quite young, like Gabriella Phelps (1870-1927), Elizabeth Wallis (1652-1689), Louisa Wise (1834-1864), and Diantha Cady (1810-1837).

Gradually, the pattern began to reveal itself. The women who survived past the age of 40 tended to live well into their 70s or beyond. There were only a handful who died in their 50s or 60s. It was either young or old, and very little in between.

As I related in Tears in the Graveyard, we have discovered that about one-third of the children born to our pre-20th century ancestors did not survive to reach adulthood. Many died within days of their birth, many others from typhoid or influenza, and a few from drowning or fatal injuries. The males who reached adulthood either lived long, full lives or they were killed in battle or by other injuries. Very few of the men succumbed to disease as adults. The women were less fortunate. Quite a few died of complications from childbirth before the age of 40. Another signifcant cause of death was disease -- expecially typhoid and influenza. But those who reached 40 usually lived at least another 30 years.

So, yes, the average lifespan was indeed about 40 years. But, like so many statistics, the average doesn't reveal the truth. The truth is that the people who survived the dangers of childhood and the women who survived the rigors of childbirth and child-rearing lived just as long -- if not longer -- than people live today. And they did it without regular health care, annual check-ups, health insurance, HMOs, PPOs, and MediCare!

What was their secret? What was their "fountain of youth"? Simple: constant activity and good food.

Instead of sitting behind a desk for eight hours, then spending a half-hour in the gym, they worked steadily all day long. Sure, they did hard work, too. But they didn't spend the entire day felling timber and digging up stumps. Most of their work was planting, tilling, weeding, grinding -- moderate work that kept them active the entire day.

And they didn't eat low-fat yogurt, Omega-3 fatty acids, and endive salads with basalmic vinegar dressing. They ate meat, potatoes, bread, and fruits or vegetables when they were in season. Meat could be salted, smoked, or cured; potatoes, turnips, and carrots would keep in the root cellar; and grains could be stored in bins and cannisters, so they could be eaten year-round. But fruits and vegetables were mostly seasonal additions to their diets. They did not follow the "food pyramid". They didn't have vitamins and supplements. And they cooked with plenty of butter, salt, and lard! They broke almost every dietary rule we are told will keep us healthy today. But what they also didn't have were steroids, colorings, flavorings, and chemical additives in their food. It was natural, whole food -- nothing more. Salt, brine, and wood smoke were their primary preservatives; not chemicals.

All of the wonders of science and medicine have not added one day to our lifespan! People are not living longer than they did 200 years ago; just more of them are living as long. That's an important distinction to understand as we look at the issues of health care and retirement in the 21st century world. And the enormous costs of medical care we are burdened with are chiefly the result of excessive leisure in our lives. Our grandparents were right when they told us, "A little hard work never hurt anyone."

As we examine the issues surrounding health care, instead of asking how we can reduce the cost of the healthcare our unhealthy lives require, we should be asking ourselves how much we are willing to pay in added health care costs for our unhealthy lifestyles. That's the message my ancestors sent me this week.

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