Why We Live 40 Years Longer Today Than We Did in 1880

The golden age of medicine—in one chart

The late 19th and early 20th centuries were a golden era of American health innovation. Breakthroughs like germ theory, antibiotics, and widespread vaccination, as well as major public-health advances in sanitation and regulation, neutralized many long-leading causes of death. Life expectancy skyrocketed as a result, but brought with it new demons. For the past 50 years, medical innovation has focused less on eradicating disease and more on managing chronic conditions. Does this indicate a slowdown in medical progress and a coming plateau in life expectancy? Or have we merely hit a lull before the next wave of major fixes?

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Joe Pinsker is an assistant editor at The Atlantic. He has written for Rolling Stone, Forbes, and Salon.

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