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Changes in the Age Distribution of Mortality Over the 20th Century

  • David Cutler
  • Ellen Meara

Mortality has declined continuously in the United States over the course of the 20th century, and at relatively constant rates. But the constancy of mortality reductions masks significant heterogeneity by age, cause, and source. Using historical data on death by age and cause, this paper describes the characteristics of mortality decline over the 20th century. Early in the 20th century, mortality declines resulted from public health and economic measures that improved peoples' ability to withstand disease. Because nutrition and public health were more important for the young than the old, mortality reductions were concentrated at younger ages. By mid-century, medical care became more significant and other factors less so. Penicillin and sulfa drugs brought the first mortality reductions at older ages, which were coupled with continuing improvements in health at younger ages. The pattern of mortality reduction was relatively equal by age. In the latter part of the 20th century, death became increasingly medicalized. Cardiovascular disease mortality was prevented in significant part through medical intervention. Most of the additional years added to life in the last few decades of the 20th century were at older ages.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 8556.

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Date of creation: Oct 2001
Date of revision:
Publication status: published as Wise, David (ed.) Perspectives on the Economics of Aging. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:8556
Note: AG CH HC
Contact details of provider: Postal: National Bureau of Economic Research, 1050 Massachusetts Avenue Cambridge, MA 02138, U.S.A.
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  1. David M. Cutler & Edward Glaeser & Karen Norberg, 2000. "Explaining the Rise in Youth Suicide," NBER Working Papers 7713, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  2. Angus Deaton, 2001. "Relative Deprivation, Inequality, and Mortality," NBER Working Papers 8099, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  3. Robert W. Fogel, 1994. "Economic Growth, Population Theory, and Physiology: The Bearing of Long-Term Processes on the Making of Economic Policy," NBER Working Papers 4638, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. David M. Cutler & Ellen Meara, 2000. "The Technology of Birth: Is It Worth It?," NBER Chapters, in: Frontiers in Health Policy Research, Volume 3, pages 33-68 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  5. Cutler David M. & Meara Ellen, 2000. "The Technology of Birth: Is It Worth It?," Forum for Health Economics & Policy, De Gruyter, vol. 3(1), pages 1-37, January.
  6. Samuel H. Preston, 1996. "American Longevity: Past, Present, and Future," Center for Policy Research Policy Briefs 7, Center for Policy Research, Maxwell School, Syracuse University.
  7. Jennifer M. Mellor & Jeffrey D. Milyo, 2001. "Income inequality and health," Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 20(1), pages 151-155.
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