Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login
How the Mid-Victorians Worked, Ate and Died (2009) (nih.gov)
115 points by ganonm on June 19, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 75 comments

One of the paper's authors, Dr Judith Rowbotham, is a historian, not a scientist:


And here is the other author, Dr Paul Clayton, promoting "MonaVie" supplements:


MonaVie turns out to be a multi-level marketing company selling food supplements (the same kind of supplements that this paper goes out of its way to recommend) that defaulted on a $152m loan in 2015 and went into foreclosure:


Glad to see it dead. MLMs are cancer.

I attended one of MonaVie's "internal"[0] meetings, invited there by an acquaintance of mine who was over-eager to get me to join in under him. I can tell you, this thing was literally a cult. The meeting consisted of people one-upping each other in describing how happy and rich they will be, coupled with top regional staff promising rewards for best performers - including, I kid you not, an orbital flight as a space tourist. The entire meeting was a happy death spiral[1] - a chain reaction of good feelings.

Seriously, I am so glad to see it down.


[0] - i.e. by distributors, for distributors, not meant for the product end-users.

[1] - http://lesswrong.com/lw/lm/affective_death_spirals/

So how did this get published by the NIH?

And is there a way to tell if it has been peer reviewed?

It was actually published in this journal: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Journal_of_Envir.... The journal charges a fee to have one's paper processed. I'm not sure if that is typical in open access journals, but the analogy to self-publishing fiction makes me slightly uncomfortable.

This article seems to me to be a sales pitch, which makes me think that Dr. Rowbotham wrote the historical context for the article and Dr. Clayton built up the scientific portion. I'd call shenanigans, except the article was originally published in three parts by the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (which is refereed), so I'm just calling shenani.

Since I am (or was) an historian I'm going to look at Dr. Rowbotham to see if I can make sense of her motivations for writing this paper.* That might help us understand why an historian would even consent to publish an article like this. At first glance, things don't look good. She's working in the school of business at Plymouth, which is weird, but perhaps that figures in to her interests in crime? She co-founded the SOLON institute, which has been the vehicle for publishing some of her work. Her work has been published by several journals and publishers, but generally they're not that great. The SOLON institute is also led by what most academics in English would consider "tier 3" universities, at best.

She just looks like a fringe academic.

But then we dive deeper into her resume. She was a Reader at Nottingham Trent Uni. Now, Nottingham is nothing to write home about, but being a Reader is-- in the US it's the equivalent of being an Associate Professor. Now she's a Visiting Research Fellow, which is usually a stipended position and allows the researcher to work solely on ... research. That means that her project, whatever it is, at the very least was interesting and viable to the University of Plymouth. So that's worth knowing, because even at low level universities research fellowships are desirable.

I think that this line from her bio may be key: "My research focus consequently shifted to 'bad' behaviour, and I began to develop my interdisciplinary credentials as a lawyer and criminologist as well as a historian of crime." After publishing her PhD thesis in 1989 she doesn't appear to have produced much research. Then in 2010 everything picks up. When seeing vitae gaps like this on the resume of a female professor the assumption of most (male) academics is that she was raising children, and that's probably true, but she also made a pivot in her career to law and criminology, which further interrupted her career.

She is likely a very rare creature in British academia: a generalist. That's the sort of thing that's horrible for a career in the UK, but may very well make her an excellent teacher and a great resource if you're into crime and law in Victorian England. I can't say of course. One thing I do know is that it's good (for the historical profession) to have historians reaching across fields and asking these sorts of questions. So, Dr. Clayton notwithstanding, this may very well be a worthwhile endeavor. I think we'd all like some corroboration, though, because the article itself is pretty shaky. I wonder if Dr. Rowbotham's training gave her an understanding of statistics.

* In theory someone could just ask, but then that wouldn't require the kind of qualitative analysis that historians do so well!

> . I wonder if Dr. Rowbotham's training gave her an understanding of statistics.

Surely an understanding of statistics is a prerequisite for a study of criminology?

You would think so! But if she went to Nottingham Trent for her criminology coursework she would have had no statistics courses at the undergrad level and the only stats-related course at the postgrad level is "Comprehensive Research Methods Training". Their law school coursework is also lacking in stats, but that's not really a surprise.

Umm. I had basic statistics as part of SMP maths in the early seventies at senior high school for A levels. And of course this was reinforced at uni because you can't make sense of experiments without statistics. I studied physics where results are actually often pretty clear but we still had to justify our conclusions with statistical reasoning; surely it is even more important in fields where you have more confounding variables and no or incomplete controls.

This doesn't seem like a fair comparison because you are comparing the lifespans of a population that includes people who needed modern medical attention to survive to age 5 to another population that contained none of those people.

Agree with that argument, but that still would not explain 90% difference in degenerative diseases occurence, unless you make the extraordinary claim that only 1 person of 10 nowadays would have survived in the Victorian Era.

That's not what a 90% reduction in the incidence of degenerative disease means. If degenerative disease occurs to 1 in 1000 people, a 90% percent reduction would be from that to 1 in 10,000 people. There's no need to make that claim.

Don't you only need to make that claim for those with degenerative diseases?

It's a comparison between people aged past 5 in both populations. It's not that unfair.

If you want to talk about unfair comparisons, you should look to all the people aged past 5 who wouldn't be alive without modern medicine (e.g. most terminal patients, some severe burn patients, some people with congenital defects, etc) and who inevitably lower the average health measures of our current populations. There's some seriously strong self-selection bias at work here: as medicine advances, the difference in health indicators between earlier and later adult populations would always be increasingly favorable to the latter.

> It's a comparison between people aged past 5 in both populations. It's not that unfair.

It's not like for like. The comparison they use is life expectancy at birth now versus life expectancy at 65 in 1850.

If you use the correct comparison i.e. life expectancy at 5 for both, it's 54.6 in 1841 and 79.4 in 2011. I link to the ONS source is a separate post.

They are confused about something else, too. This doesn't seem plausible:

> At 65, men could expect another ten years of life; and women another eight [24,32,33] (the lower figure for women reflects the high danger of death in childbirth...)

It's as if they started writing the article using life expectancy at 5 everywhere, but had to change some places to make the numbers fit.

> the lower figure for women reflects the high danger of death in childbirth

I have to say, I didn't notice that. If they have any evidence that significant numbers of 19C women in their late sixties were dying from complications due to childbirth, that would be an interesting article.

The more I read it, the more I think it's an April Fool that was published a week or two early by mistake.

Guess I'm wrong about that then! It's hard to skim an article with this much noise-to-signal ratio.

That was my point. They are selecting all people aged past 5, not just the ones that would have survived to five in Victorian times, which is presumably a healthier cohort.

It could mean that we should shift more resources into bringing people up to age 5 and let them coast from there ;-)

> 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

This is surprising, to say the least.

>life expectancy at age 5

This is the catch. The kid with asthma or diabetes didn't make it to age 5 back then, but today he does. Replace asthma or diabetes with other conditions. If your higher infant mortality is weeding out everyone who has any chronic disease which may effect longevity then this is what you get. The downside is that parents back then were burying a lot of babies.

Is it possible that the high infant mortality weeded out more children from less healthy socioeconomic and genetic backgrounds than today? So on average you'd get healthier adults which would live longer? Also, I don't like their comparison of the life expectancy of a Victorian 65-year old with a modern 5-year old. Of course the former would be relatively high.

Yeah, that comparison is so jarringly wrong it makes me question the rest of their research.

Modern Britons' life expectancies at 65 which actually are "comparable" with Victorian life expectancies at 65 are available in well publicised, frequently-updated and granular time series from ONS[1]. But since they suggest life expectancy is about twice as long for todays' 65 year olds as Victorian ones the authors appear to have deliberately distorted the truth by choosing a less relevant basis for comparison instead.

Needless to say, if they're prepared to commit statistical frauds as blatant as this, the rest of their claims should be regarded as suspicious especially the more outrageous longevity claims. It wasn't a surprise to find that one of the authors runs a nutrition supplement company and has been featured on Ben Goldacre's Bad Science blog before

Which is a shame, because there probably are valid, non-obvious points about aspects of Victorian diets and lifestyles that were healthier than ours, buried under wilfully misleading claims about degenerative diseases being a purely modern phenomenon.


Indeed. The like for like historical comparisons [1] that cover the period of the paper to today lend themselves to a very different interpretation. If anything, life expectancy for a 65yo dropped a little through their "golden age" and has been increasing since.

Also, if you do the 5yo comparison, life expectancy for a male was 54.6 in 1841 and 79.4 in 2011.

As this information is trivially available and the life expectancy claim is central to their argument, it's hard not to conclude that the article is willfully misleading.

[1] http://visual.ons.gov.uk/how-has-life-expectancy-changed-ove...

This actually can go back to the middle ages. Obviously, middle ages longevity is by no means comparable to the 1800s, let alone now, but the people who made it past say, 30-40 did live until their 70s, even 80s. People didn't drop dead at 35.

Also in Diogenes Laerteos' book most philosophers from 7th century BC to 3rd AD live about 70-80 years (the book itself written about 3rd AD).

My favorite misconception along those lines is often worded as "If you made it to 30 back then, you were considered elderly"

Indeed, there are many kings who made it to their 70s and 80s. Even Charlemagne died at 71.

Infant mortality is constantly elided in order to exaggerate lifespan increases. Not to imply that infant mortality isn't a good thing to reduce, but when you say the average person dies at 50 and there's no concentration of people dying around 50, but instead concentrations in infancy and at the same age people die now (or later), the mean is deceptive.

Death during school age is a novelty now. It makes news. The rare case of childhood cancer. Every large suburban high school has traffic fatallity by inexperienced, partying students. But usually just one. If you read biographies from US revolutionary times (1700s), almost every nuclear family knew death. Families were often blended with widows and widowers rapidily remarrying due to the burden of raising a family. Sometimes this lead to the story of the cold parent or step-parent who did not invest as much emotional capital in a child who might not last.

I don't know why, but this information has come up a lot in conversation the past week for me. My family, which mostly live unhealthy sedentary lives, discussed dying at 60. I was trying to make the point to them, if we gathered the statistic for people who live over 40, you would find that the average lifespan is much close to 80-90. The reason being is infant mortality and youthfulness. When you are young, you take many more risks (ie. driving fast in your car, drinking and drugging, etc.). There is a certain threshold age where you are just competing with Cancer and getting old, but the rate of death is much lower.

Now I should just do some real research to back up that for them with statistics.

There are actuarial tables with expected life given your gender and current age that illustrate your point.


Making it to 40 only increases a males life expectancy by around 2.25 years to 78.53 and that only jumps to 81.5 at 60. https://www.ssa.gov/oact/STATS/table4c6.html?bcsi-ac-a36e4bd...

At 70 you only have ok odds of hitting 80-90. However, even at 85 the odds of hitting 90 are only ~50/50.

PS: Yes, there are plenty of people who will see 100+, but that's mostly because the initial pool is so large.

Wars have a statistically significant impact on life expectancy for young adults (males typically) as well. You can see it in the cohorts aged around massive conflicts.

Thanks in part to globalization and free trade, most of the West haven't had a demographically significant war in ~70 years.

Yep. Luckily. But a) the rest of the world has and b) 70 years is a single generation, thus impacting the cohort in the data.

Hope we can keep it that way.

They do not take into account the mass introduction of environmental contaminants following the 1880s Industrial Revolution.

Assuming this is all accurate, imagine if the Mid-Victorians had access to the vaccines, antibiotics, surgeons, and dentists that we do.

"Our recent research indicates that the mid-Victorians’ good health was entirely due to their superior diet. This period was, nutritionally speaking, an island in time; one that was created and subsequently squandered by economic and political forces. This begs a series of questions. How did this brief nutritional ‘golden age’ come about? How was it lost? And could we recreate it?"

Very interesting. My take on the rest of it shows that they ate more vegetables relative to calorific intake, and less sugar. I'm not convinced on the drinking or tobacco comments - I think these are things that are not as prevalent in my generation as much as the authors may have thought it is.

The article needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

Our infant mortality has gone down, leading to many more "weaker" individuals making it past five (of course a positive thing for most). These individuals are likely to have a shorter lifetime expectancy (sometimes far too short), dragging down the average.

These individuals are sorted out entirely in the historic data, as they would not have made it till 5 years of age back then, which is the age they use for the comparison.

In other words, it does not produce any evidence that a healthy individual from back then is any healthier than a healthy individual now. It merely shows that our weak individuals live longer than back then, turning an infant death into a maybe decent life.

Yes but they also compare mid 1800s with late 1800s. No data readily available, but I assume it was still quite high in the late 1800s, especially with the working classes.

wasn't sugar fairly expensive at some time?

The data space around this is so complex, it is simply not possible to come to single, clear conclusions.

Lots of interesting questions, no answers to date:

1., Did the introduction of electricity and mass refrigeration amplify/cause the deterioration of public health?

2., Did the massive losses of young, fit, male population in WW1 and WW2 lead to the decline of public health in the partaking nations? It stopped fine genetic material from procreating (you needed to fulfill health standards to serve after all). Losses of that scale were not encountered before.

etc etc.

Correlation, causation, the usual.

Forget the paleo diet. Someone ought to start the Victorian diet.

I suspect a diet of no cars would be very unpallatable these days.

Even if offset by trains and dirigibles?

I think people just did not travel that far and would think nothing of walking 5-10 miles to work. Public transport was not very prevalent outside of cities I suspect.

Little bit early for airships.

Call it the steampunk diet, and you'd probably have a hit.

/insert a ton of random gears here...

So we need to do two things?:

1. Move a lot more (twice as much). What would this entail in today's society? Fitness?

2. Eat twice as much as we do now and focus on fish, fruits and vegetables?

Doubling calorie needs is hard if you have a sedentary job in the modern world.

Walk / Cycle to work every day at a fast pace (1 hour total). Play some kind of sport daily at lunchtime / after work (1 hour). You’ve just used an extra 1000 calories or so. Congratulations: you’re almost half way to your goal of doubling your daily calorie output.

Plus you still need to spend time doing all the other stuff to keep your life going outside work.

It can be done, but modern life guides people to a constant sedentary lifestyle. Drive to work, sit at home in the evenings watching TV etc etc.

> So we need to do two things

TBH we only need to do one thing which is to ignore the article. As stated in other comments, the authors' life expectancy premise is horribly flawed to such an extent that it is hard to make the case that it isn't deliberate.

If you use the correct data, the only sensible conclusion you can make is that, for life expectancy at all ages, it's a hell of a lot better living now (in the UK at least) compared to living in the late 19C (in the UK).

Whether or not there were dietary benefits then versus now, I have no idea. Maybe there were but they are heavily swamped by medical and other considerations. What I do know is that this article adds nothing to the body of knowledge that would determine that.

If you ignore the garbage information on the Internet, the advice is pretty consistent going back decades. Exercise as much as possible. Eat an appropriate amount of food. In other words, if you are overweight, eat less. Eat whole foods, preferably cooked by yourself or another human with your interests in mind.

It's not rocket science. But it is hard, since it goes against many of our instincts and marketing and societal pressures.

> Exercise as much as possible

Well, within reason. But most are busy enough that this works out the same.

3. Reduce the number of people on earth to 19th century levels.

And drop the consumption of sugars significantly

Perhaps we have become too inactive. Perhaps only the fittest, healthiest individuals made it into adulthood and therefore the population enjoyed long, healthy lifespans. Perhaps our genomes have degraded without strong negative selective pressure against human ailments.

But I doubt a new diet fad will be the elixir for longevity.

The negative and dismissive comments here are enlightening. Progressivism (the religion of many of the narcissistic STEM grads on HN) would appear to in reality be a form of temporal parochialism; for this Star-Trekian religion to function, the past simply has to be worse than the present and future.

Can you tell me what you mean by "negative and dismissive"?

If negative includes perfectly valid criticism, then who cares? Dismissive? Which comments?

Rather than generalising over this thread-tree, why not respond to some? It seems a bit early for you to be invoking a stereotype.

The only unsubstantial dismissal I see in this thread is yours.

Yes, I do find it interesting what gets downvoted and why. There is a great deal groupthink and foregone conclusions and not enough critical thinking. We are all subject to our own biases, but if those biases close up our minds to new ideas, then you aren't being scientific or seeking truth.

Being scientific means that when conclusions take you to places you are not comfortable with, you keep going anyways.

To avoid doing so is dangerous, and I see so much of that avoidance today, unfortunately for all of us. Reject that "religion" and free yourself from guilt.

Whether the past was better or worse is irrelevant. I only seek to understand the findings and have them inform our current times. I do find it hard to believe that life in the Victorian Era was longer/more enjoyable than today simply because modern medicine has evolved so much and because we know so much more about what harms people.

One issue which isn't discussed much is so-called 'mutational meltdown' from about 1800 in England whereby the (good and laudable) improvements in public health, child mortality and so forth has led to an increased burden of genetic mutations with each generation.

> They had relatively little access to alcohol

This seems very wrong from what I know about Victorian Britain

If this is indeed true I'd imagine that most of the cause is diet based. Sugar is good for hummingbirds, not people.

> I'd imagine that most of the cause is diet based

From the introduction:

Our recent research indicates that the mid-Victorians’ good health was entirely due to their superior diet.

Which is exactly what the article says. You should read it, it's pretty good.

what did they eat?

It's right there in the first paragraph:

> high intake of fruits, whole grains, oily fish and vegetables

The article is not as focused on infant mortality as the post title suggests.

Am wondering about the statement regarding cancer being rare. Is that only because people didn't live long enough?

I went to a Wal-Mart this past weekend, I know full well what is wrong with contemporary health--excess eating!

"Is that only because people didn't live long enough?"

According to the article, their life expectancy after the age of 5 was comparable to ours.

"excess eating"

According to the article, their calorific intake was approximately twice ours because they expended so much more calories working & keeping warm. 3000 calories for a "sedentary" man, over 5000 for a labourer.

It makes no sense unless we truly have way more carcinogens in our modern world. Something doesn't add up--either the stats are skewed because modern populations are so much larger, or record keeping was bad, or...something.

Also, you downvoted me, then posted "life expectancy after age 5" which, in my thinking, only validates that article has little to do with "infant mortality" since age 0-5 covers a wide band of people who are not infants, right?

In The Case Against Sugar, Gary Taubes makes the case that basically all of what kills people in old age now (diabetes, heart disease, and cancer) are the result of the way extremely large amounts of sugar are metabolized by our bodies. Sugar consumption per capita is way, way higher now than it was then.

Men lived three years longer back then, according to TFA.

Is that related to death during childbirth?

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact