Most of us want to be Methuselah. You know, Noah's grandfather, the guy in Genesis who lived to the ripe old age of 969. But we only want longevity - realistically, 70 to 90 years - if good health comes with it.
Have you ever thought about people in previous eras who didn't enjoy the benefits so common now: retirement, a chance to do activities you couldn't enjoy in your working and child rearing days, medically enhanced golden years? Our medical care and diagnostic technologies undoubtedly surpass pre-germ-theory wisdom. However, it's possible we overestimate our longevity relative to that of the 19th and previous centuries. Modern data aside, it's hard to pin down any era's life expectancy because of wildly varied genetics, lifestyles, environments, and causes of death. A walk through any cemetery is enough to further muddy this era's life expectancy claims.
Forest Hill Cemetery in Fredonia is just one cemetery filled with people who lived long, and undoubtedly - just like us - well. Lydia and Jacob Houghton, for instance, born in 1780 and 1777 respectively. They lived through the Constitutional Convention, the War of 1812 (remembered it even), and the War with Mexico (how exciting to watch their country grow), and she lived past the Civil War. He died at 84. Another pair included Lena (age 82) and Charles (age 81) Schlining - their lives spanned the Civil War to World War II.
Forest Hill is a large cemetery. There's Ammon Cobb (1842-1925), his wife Eunice (died at 83), daughter Edith (1873-1957), and son Clifford, who died at 73, a year before Eisenhower's election to the Presidency. A quick walk through Forest Hill yields fistfuls of geriatric forebears, many of them married couples: Louisa and Henry Goodman (76 and 84); Winifred and Benjamin Martignoni (73 and 80); Mary and William Hannan (84 and 82); Edith and John Bourne (76 and 81). Get the picture? There are lots more, but the point will rest on this pair of Americans born just after the Constitutional Convention: Ann Chamberlin (age 79) and Joseph Thompson (age 84). Their portfolio includes the War of 1812, the War with Mexico, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Gilded Age. Their official cause of death is "old age." Pretty impressive for people born without modern medicine!
Are these merely exceptions? There are an awful lot of them. How did these people make it through typhoid and cholera epidemics, childbearing, smallpox and whooping cough, consumption, dropsy? How did they survive on presumably inferior diets?
Imagine what would happen if our forebears traded their lifestyle for ours. It's possible the tradeoff would result in net equality - neither gain nor loss. Yes, there was cholera; take a point away. For us, there are EMF's and exhaust pollution; take a point from us. Before refrigerators, food was hard to preserve, so take away a point. Our food is filled with chemicals and organ-ruining additives like corn syrup and aspartame, so we lose a point. Consumption; lung cancer. Risk of puerperal infection after childbirth: OK, we come out ahead there. Typhus infantum; we score another point against the past. Mesothelioma and radiation poisoning - there goes our advantage.
Here's the problem: we never eliminate deadly circumstances without creating new ones. Just watch any drug commercial for the list of "side effects ... including death." Pretty much the only side effect of the 19th-century elixir was a drunken buzz. We buy our food packaged and processed, salted and pressed and modified. In the agrarian past, food was fresher, at least in villages like Fredonia with its numerous markets and general stores. Those who could - and there were many gardeners as well as farmers in this area - grew their food, harvested it, butchered it, dried, stored, and canned it.
All of this was hard work. Undoubtedly, we have more leisure time now. Or at least we did, until the recent invention of twenty-four-hour availability and multitasking. Isn't that just like us, to make life easier so we can make it harder?
It's likely the Cobbs and the Bournes and the other permanent residents of Marble City lived long because they managed to avoid putting toxins in their bodies and because the everyday business of laboring and cooking and farming and washing and running machines kept them fit. Now, we have to invent ways to move our bodies.
If we want to live as long as modern science claims, we need to become a community of fit people. It wouldn't hurt to take lessons from the past. We may not make it as far as Methuselah, but we can have a good run anyway.
Renee Gravelle is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org