FIGURE 2 Proportion of population aged 0 to 14 versus 65+, Italy 1861-2050. Figures for 2001-2050 are projections. Source: From Refs. 7,8.
interview surveys since the late 1950s and a consistent series of direct measurements of health status since the 1970s, in both cases for a representative sample of the national population.3 These and similar data for other industrialized countries can be used to measure changes in health status, but it is often difficult to compare the results reliably across populations and over time.
On the other hand, we have detailed mortality data from many countries over much longer time periods. These data often include information on the attributed cause of death, although this concept, like health or functional status, is difficult to define and measure in a consistent fashion. Although there have been some attempts to measure early human longevity based on skeletal remains and other information (1), the most useful information on historical mortality trends comes from time series of national data, collected since around 1750 in some parts of Europe. The accuracy of such data is variable, but specialists mostly know which data are reliable or potentially inaccurate. Data on cause of death must always be analyzed with great caution: although some trends are irrefutable (e.g., the historical decline of infectious disease), others appear contaminated by changes in diagnostic procedures and reporting practices (e.g., cancer trends, especially at older ages).
This section describes major trends in human longevity from the past and the present. A later section of this chapter offers some guarded speculations about what the future may hold. We do not address the issue of "healthy life span," although the interested reader may refer to other sources on this topic (9,10) (Chapter 3).
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