Age differences in cultural efficiency: secular trends in longevity
In: Staudinger, U. M., Lindenberger, U. (Eds.): Understanding human development: dialogues with lifespan psychology, 59–78
Boston [et al.], Kluwer Academic Publishers (2003)
As individuals grow older, they become less well adapted to surviving. A large and steady age-related increase in adult mortality can be observed across different countries and different time periods. Despite these pervasive age-related decrements in people´s capability to survive, we argue that mortality is plastic and that it can be affected by cultural changes. Mortality data for various developed countries indicate that death rates at older ages have fallen dramatically during the twentieth century. Mortality improvements have been greater for females than for males, and the pace of improvement has been more rapid in recent than in earlier decades.
Further evidence for the plasticity of mortality is obtained from an examination of old-age survival in unified Germany. From around 1970 onward, mortality decline in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany) was slower than in the former Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany), which resulted in a mortality gap between the two German states. After German unification in 1990 and the ensuing cultural, political, and economic changes in the former GDR, the mortality gap between east and west decreased. From 1990 to 1996 the female mortality difference between eastern and western Germany was reduced by more than half.
Little is yet known about the specific cultural factors that affect old-age mortality and why mortality among the oldest old has been so plastic during the twentieth century. It is known that the chance of reaching advanced old age is better for women than men, for people born in this century rather than earlier, for people born in developed countries, and for people who have some favorable genes. It is likely that individual lifestyle (such as smoking behavior and diet) and societal factors (such as access to and quality of medical care) are additional important determinants of survival. Psychological traits (such as intellectual abilities and conscientiousness) may also have some influence on longevity.