“The failure of most vampire literature is that the authors can’t successfully imagine what it’s like to be 300 years old. I try really hard to get it right,” Rice says. “I really love taking Lestat”—her most famous character—“into an all-night drugstore and having him talk about how he remembers in 1789 that not a single product there existed in any form that was available to him as a young man in Paris. He marvels at the affluence and the wealth of the modern world.”
To a caveman, modern humans might appear not unlike Lestat and his vampire kin. We don’t necessarily consume blood to live, nor can we transform into bats, wolves, or mist, but we do have a host of seemingly superhuman powers. Chief among those, to the primitive human, would be our ability to live long lives.
If a caveman were exceptionally lucky, he might have made it to his 40s, but he more than likely would have succumbed to pneumonia, starvation, or injury before his early 20s—if he survived infancy in the first place, that is. Life expectancy for humans more than 10,000 years ago was short and didn’t improve much for a long time. In ancient Rome, the average citizen lived to only about age 24. But most counted themselves fortunate to get even that far; more than a third of children died before their first birthday. A thousand years later, expectations looked much the same.
Over the course of the next 800 years, people in the more advanced parts of the world added only 15 years to their life expectancy. An average American in 1820 could expect to see 39. Lifespans started to pick up in the early 19th century—around the same time that vampire myths were proliferating in Europe—and really sped up in the 20th thanks to a decline in infant mortality and improvements to health in general. By 2010, the average U.S. life expectancy had nearly doubled from two centuries prior, at 78 years, with similar results in other developed countries. To a caveman, or an average Roman, that would seem like an eternity.
Rice recognizes this perspective. Even with Louisiana’s comparatively low life expectancy, she and others from the Pelican state are still far better off than most people at any point in history. “I would be dead if we were in the 19th century,” says the septuagenarian. “But we’re living in the most wonderful age. Never before has the world been the way it is for us. There’s never been this kind of longevity and good health.”
* * *
One question that inevitably arises when talking about living longer is, are we living better? A person might live to 100 today, but what’s the quality of those later years?
The question can’t be answered empirically unless we consider what used to make us sick and kill us. The top three killers of Americans in 1900—pneumonia or influenza, tuberculosis, and gastrointestinal infections—don’t appear on the 2010 list, banished to manageability along with historic illnesses such as smallpox, scurvy, and rubella. Today’s top three—heart disease, cancer, and noninfectious airways disease—stand apart. Unlike their predecessors, they’re not infectious; instead they’re environmental, self-inflicted, or genetic. Some doctors believe that makes them eminently more treatable. Others think we’re entering a technology-driven healthcare revolution that not only will beat back some of the worst killers but also greatly improve the quality of life after illness.