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By Gautschi W.

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Tillich, Paul: Gesammelte Werke. Erganzungs- und Nachlabande: Berliner Vorlesungen III. (1951-1958)

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During the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries the average age of death jumped from 35 to 65 years. Consequently, instead of a few people aging, almost everyone could expect to age, and to die from a long drawn out degenerative disease. No wonder people became afraid of death. 1). In 1800, global average life expectancy at birth was about 30 years; by 2000 it had increased to 67 years. That is, the average lifespan for the whole world more than doubled. 2). 3). The numbers of people living in their economically productive years filled out, and the old became commonplace everywhere.

Before 1900 infections were the main cause of death. 3). However, bacteria and viruses, in particular those causing pneumonia and influenza, contribute to respiratory disease. Respiratory diseases are primarily caused by damage to the lungs, which are then less able to resist infections. Micro-organisms in food, water and surfaces can and have been effectively controlled by hygiene and sanitation, but micro-organisms in the air can travel long distances, from one lung to another, and are much more difficult to control.

Similar figures can be found throughout the developed world. Thus it is not true to believe that old people were just as common in the past – very old people are a new and ‘unnatural’ phenomenon. This change during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries due to reduced death rates at all ages is known as mortality transition3. It might be thought that this transition was restricted to developed countries in the West. In fact, although the mortality transition occurred later in developing countries, it occurred or is occurring more rapidly there.

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