A brief golden age of health?
June 19, 2017 7:12 AM   Subscribe

How the Mid-Victorians Worked, Ate and Died With the exception of family planning and antibiotics, the vast edifice of twentieth century healthcare has generated little more than tools to suppress symptoms of the degenerative diseases which have emerged due to our failure to maintain mid-Victorian nutritional standards.
posted by Zarkonnen (27 comments total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: Seems like that link has fairly significant issues that would need to be framed around pretty clearly in the post for this to really be a good idea. Probably better that we give this a pass. -- cortex



 
The abstract is...intense:

"Analysis of the mid-Victorian period in the U.K. reveals that life expectancy at age 5 was as good or better than exists today, and the incidence of degenerative disease was 10% of ours. Their levels of physical activity and hence calorific intakes were approximately twice ours. They had relatively little access to alcohol and tobacco; and due to their correspondingly high intake of fruits, whole grains, oily fish and vegetables, they consumed levels of micro- and phytonutrients at approximately ten times the levels considered normal today. This paper relates the nutritional status of the mid-Victorians to their freedom from degenerative disease; and extrapolates recommendations for the cost-effective improvement of public health today."

I mis-read that at first-- I thought it was saying that their incidence of degenerative disease was 10% LESS than ours, which would still be impressive. But nope! 10%. 90% lower.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 7:23 AM on June 19 [4 favorites]


Additionally I imagine being slowly suffocated by your underwear and swathed in yards of hot fabric even in the middle of summer as you seethe in mute rage at your complete lack of civil rights would serve as a pretty serious inducement against knocking back a whole burrito and a pitcher of Margaritas with the girls on a Friday night. And that's assuming you're not working an unregulated job in a factory, having been bodily compromised by the squalor you grew up in and you're not, like, a literal slave.

But sure. Healthy diets. Less degenerative disease.
posted by thivaia at 7:29 AM on June 19 [13 favorites]




The mid-Victorian navvies, who as seasonal workers were towards the bottom end of the economic scale, could routinely shovel up to 20 tons of earth per day from below their feet to above their heads. This was an enormous physical effort that required great strength, stamina and robust good health.

When I was 19 I had a job that required constant hard physical labor (shoveling and pushing wheelbarrows). The amount of food I had to eat! I needed a large breakfast, then I needed a morning snack, then a large lunch, then an afternoon snack, then a dinner... of course it was mostly Little Debbie snack cakes because that's what you can buy on your $7 an hour factory job and eat in your 15 minute break, but my parents were also providing me breakfast and dinner.
posted by Hypatia at 7:39 AM on June 19 [2 favorites]


Additionally I imagine being slowly suffocated by your underwear and swathed in yards of hot fabric even in the middle of summer... (etc)

Have you read TFA? This is rather far off course. Plus, your argument kind of falls apart right from the beginning, as one would assume that the effects of sweltering under piles of thick fabric in summer would hinder a healthy life, and yet they were healthier than we are.

No one's arguing that gaining civil rights brings on a less healthy lifestyle -- except, oddly, you.
posted by tzikeh at 7:40 AM on June 19 [3 favorites]


And that's assuming you're not working an unregulated job in a factory, having been bodily compromised by the squalor you grew up in and you're not, like, a literal slave.

You might consider reading the article. They weren't. Bodily compromised by the squalor they grew up in, for the most part. If you survived infancy, a working class man in 1850 Victorian Britain lived on average three years longer than a British working class man today. It's not until American grain and Australian corned beef start getting shipped over in the late 19th century and everybody starts smoking and living on white bread and tinned fruit that the urban working poor start shrinking.

Or in other words, all the medical advances of the 20th century have barely served to keep us in place and drag us up from the ruin brought about by sedentary lifestyles, cigarettes and sugar.

It's interesting. The authors are not arguing that the Victorian era was better for civil rights. Merely that the mid-Victorian period was much better for health than previously understood, and that our cocky modern selves, convinced that everything that's happened is progress, are under a delusion. Turns out being physically active and eating a bunch of vegetables does more for you than the modern phrama.
posted by Diablevert at 7:43 AM on June 19 [3 favorites]


Additionally I imagine being slowly suffocated by your underwear and swathed in yards of hot fabric even in the middle of summer

Apart from everything else kind of weird about this comment, 19th c. British novels are full of people lamenting the unbearable heat of summer as being around 78 degrees Farenheit on the hottest days (25 C). End of the little Ice Age, etc.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 7:52 AM on June 19 [2 favorites]


Ah, tzikeh and Diablevert, you might want to read the top link in Halloween Jack's post. It basically point out all the statistical fudging they do to get those numbers. They compared Life Expectancy At Birth today to Life Expectancy At Age 20 in the Victorian period, which heavily skews the average. If you compare apples to apples (age 20 vs age 20) people do live longer today, despite our less healthy lifestyles.

Plus, most of the disease claims they make are easily explained by people dying younger. If most people die about age 60, you don't see most of the cancers and degenerative diseases that show up when you are in your 70s....
posted by Canageek at 7:58 AM on June 19 [13 favorites]


I'm generally suspicious of Slate Star Codex, having read an article from there that was very convincing until I found it torn apart on MetaFilter (I am very bad at falsifying interesting ideas), but honestly the fact that it's in a non peer-reviewed journal is enough. This is essentially a blog post hosted on the NIH website.

Anyway, this thread is now apparently about Victorian social mores! Which we can't be entirely confident about because they only wrote down what the upper classes thought. We know, for instance, that almost all working class women worked in the early 1900s, despite the supposed ideal being women staying at home and raising the children while the man was the bread-winner. It's fairly unlikely, for instance, that a woman actually working would be wearing yards of hot fabric, because it was the idle rich who wore the foofy outfits and the working class wore simpler clothes.

The thing about history is that it's rewritten by the winners.
posted by Merus at 8:01 AM on June 19 [3 favorites]


Turns out being physically active and eating a bunch of vegetables does more for you than the modern phrama.

That's all well and good, but some of us are trying to make our fortunes on the subcontinent, so kindly take your opinions elsewhere, eh, what? My manservant will show you out.
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:02 AM on June 19 [3 favorites]


I broadly agree with the authors that there are a lot of popular misconceptions about Victorian times. However, this article is really unsatisfying from a rhetorical standpoint. It makes unsubstantiated and broad claims like:
While the Victorians did not possess sophisticated diagnostic or screening technology, they were as able to diagnose late stage cancer as we are today
If I were a peer reviewer, I would want a pretty strenuous citation for two facets of this claim: (1) They were as able to diagnose as we are, and (2) the percent of patients who accessed this kind of health care were the same then as today, therefore lower rates mean actual lower incidents.

This is a persuasively written article but not a persuasively argued one.
posted by muddgirl at 8:02 AM on June 19 [11 favorites]


That Slate Star Codex critique should probably be added to the OP, to be honest.
posted by aaronetc at 8:04 AM on June 19 [1 favorite]


Crackpot bingo :
"...echoes the way in which Big Pharma trumpets the arrival of each new miracle drug."
am I the only one that keeps reading "mid-victorians" and "midichlorians" ?
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:07 AM on June 19 [8 favorites]


tzikeh and Diablevert, you might want to read the top link in Halloween Jack's post

Did. I'm not arguing that the study isn't faulty and specious: it is. I'm pointing out that the argument "we have civil rights and can wear shorts, therefore this paper is wrong" is equally wrong.
posted by tzikeh at 8:07 AM on June 19 [2 favorites]


While the Victorians did not possess sophisticated diagnostic or screening technology, they were as able to diagnose late stage cancer as we are today

Yes, Victorians were so advanced that when someone was actively dying with enormous visible/palpable tumors, they were just as able to diagnose late stage cancer.

There are indeed a lot of misconceptions about Victorian nutrition/hygiene/medicine, but it's a big ol' claim that Victorians were healthier and longer-lived despite so many of them dying of things like pneumonia and tuberculosis and syphilis and childbirth. Claims this big need bigger evidence.
posted by Rust Moranis at 8:10 AM on June 19 [5 favorites]


This is a persuasively written article but not a persuasively argued one.

Fair dinkum, I admit I hadn't finished reading the critique before I commented, though I did RTFA. The codex makes some good points about the stats fudgery.

Still, I can't help but enjoy a briskly argued piece that makes one question one's assumptions, even if there is a whiff of John Harvey Kellogg lurking between the lines.
posted by Diablevert at 8:13 AM on June 19


I actually agreed with a lot of the criticisms in the Slate Star Codex, but it is also worth pointing out that this particular paper is based on three papers the authors published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, which is a regular peer-reviewed journal.

There are indeed a lot of misconceptions about Victorian nutrition/hygiene/medicine, but it's a big ol' claim that Victorians were healthier and longer-lived despite so many of them dying of things like pneumonia and tuberculosis and syphilis and childbirth. Claims this big need bigger evidence.

I mean, they don't make this claim even once. "Fewer people died of degenerative diseases" does not mean "fewer people died of infections". The article clearly points out that most people died of childbirth, infections, and unsafe work conditions.

The point of the article is not "Victorians lived perfect #paleo lives and were disease-free!!!!" It's kind of weird that people are pretending that it says anything like that.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 8:14 AM on June 19 [1 favorite]


I am automatically suspicious of any article that presents a tidy narrative without a methods section.
posted by WidgetAlley at 8:16 AM on June 19 [2 favorites]


Not to be, well, yeah but, so, they probably just walked a lot more, skipped the sodas/chips/fries, and could not afford enough ice cream to get really overweight.
posted by sammyo at 8:16 AM on June 19 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the SSC link, Halloween Jack. For the record, I'd say that while SSC is Quite Problematic when it comes to certain political areas, his taking apart of bad science is usually pretty solid.
posted by Zarkonnen at 8:24 AM on June 19 [1 favorite]


The three-part series in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine appears to be more thorough and actually does include methods and better descriptions of their data. It also appears that their conclusions are stated less definitively (although I am still working my way through the series). It can be accessed for free in the references section of the "broadly reworked" republished paper. I wonder at the decision to condense and republish the paper in a much weaker journal just a year after it was published in JRSM.
posted by muddgirl at 8:31 AM on June 19 [3 favorites]


Hmf, and I believe the 1st author is this guy, which does not fill me with confidence either.
posted by Zarkonnen at 8:34 AM on June 19 [1 favorite]


This article is kind of difficult, because it combines interesting information and terrible logical leaps in the same article.

So, yes, they're probably correct that a life heavy in physical exercise is good for you, but they notably don't separate out the heavy exercise they make so much of from the diet, and you really can't just handwave away infant mortality. It's both possible and probable that by removing children susceptible to disease and other issues, you ensure the remaining population is made up of people who will live longer, but that's not an implementable solution.
posted by corb at 8:47 AM on June 19 [5 favorites]


New! Try my WHOLE VIC diet! 30 days of a WHOLE VIC diet will endow you with SPIZZERINCTUM!
posted by Mo Nickels at 8:48 AM on June 19 [4 favorites]


am I the only one that keeps reading "mid-victorians" and "midichlorians" ?

No.

posted by tobascodagama at 8:53 AM on June 19 [1 favorite]


Gosh, this is so obviously shifty shit. The least anecdotal evidence they give is around life expectancies. Some people have a hard time understanding life expectancies; the average life expectancy at birth in this era was a little over 40 years, but that doesn't necessarily mean most people died around 40; infant mortality has an outsize influence here because you're adding a bunch of people who die at 0 into the average. You could have an average life expectancy of 40 if half the population died at birth and the other half lived to 80, for example. In this latter case, anybody who made it to their first birthday would have a life expectancy of 79 more years; as you get older and survive all the things that could have killed you, your life expectancy keeps moving up.

Not everybody understands this concept, which is fine, but I'd expect someone writing about medicine to understand it. And they do, since they write something about infant mortality and so on more or less as I did above. But then they go on to compare life expectancy at age 65 from the mid-Victorian era (10 years for men, 8 for women) with life expectancy at birth from today, rather than the easily available life expectancy at 65 today (over 18 years for men, over 20 for women). In fact, life expectancy at age 65 was broadly flat between 1841 and 1911, and was actually (very marginally) lower during the mid-Victorian period they describe. (The final figure on this page - in purple and green - shows the long term trends.)

If they do understand the way life expectancy works - and they sure seem to - then comparing life expectancy at birth to life expectancy at age 65 and directly subtracting one from the other, claiming in the abstract that life expectancy was "as good or better than... today", is no longer ignorance: it's malice.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 8:58 AM on June 19 [2 favorites]


New! Try my WHOLE VIC diet! 30 days of a WHOLE VIC diet will endow you with SPIZZERINCTUM!

There's a reason Vickys are a first-tier phyle.
posted by leotrotsky at 9:02 AM on June 19 [2 favorites]


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