In a recent article in The Spectator magazine two academics (Dr Paul Clayton and Dr Judith Rowbotham) presented their analysis of the health records of the mid-Victorians (1850-1880). The conclusions, to say the least, are surprising. Not only were the the mid-Victorians stronger, fitter and healthier than we are, they lived as long as we do! The wide availability of good organic food (all food was organic back then) – especially fruit, vegetables, and fish – provided a nutritionally rich diet. Assuming you survived to the age of 5, life expectancy as a mid-Victorian is pretty similar to today. In fact, life expectancy for today’s working and lower-middle classes (socio-economic groups C1, C2 and D) is actually lower: 72 years versus 75 years. With regard to how healthy we are, we can’t even begin to compete. Men nowadays spend the last 7.7 years of their lives in medical dependency, and for women it’s 10 years. Mid-Victorians, on the other hand, often worked up to the day they died.

The research challenges the accepted wisdom that lifespan is an upward curve thanks to medical and technical advances. They also take issue with blaming “old age”: “Degenerative diseases are not caused by old age (the “wear and tear” hyphothesis), but are driven, in the main, by chronic malnutrition”.

“The mid-Victorians generally died rapidly of infection and/or trauma, whereas we die slowly of degenerative disease….with the exception of family planning, the vast edifice of 20th century healthcare has not enabled us to live longer but has in the main merely supplied methods of suppressing the symptoms of degenerative diseases which have emerged due to our failure to maintain mid-Victorian nutritional standards”.

A few facts and statistics from their research into mid-Victorian society:
• The calorie intake was twice as high as ours, as they almost all had physically demanding jobs
• Their intake of micronutrients and phytonutrients were 10 times the levels of our intensively grown produce; 8-10 portions of fruit and vegetables was the norm
• Health started to decline dramatically with imports of sugar and tinned meats, and the mass availability of tinned fruit in syrup, condensed milk and confectionary; by 1900 it was common for peoples’ teeth to have fallen out due to sugar intake
• Due to diet-related stunted growth the military was forced to drop the required height for prospective recruits from 5’6” to 5’3” to 5’ within a short period of time
• Other noxious influences on health around this time were the mass manufacture of cigarettes (1883) and the loss of Vitamin D from reduced sunlight exposure as people moved to cities and factory working
• It was rare to find overweight/obese people in the working population

So, while the debate about statins and blood pressure drugs continues (both heart failure and cancer, by the way, were extremely rare among the mid-Victorians), this is another reminder that good/better health is within the grasp of all of us if we get back to eating well and moving our bodies. One final word from Dr Clayton, who refreshingly speaks his mind: “The steel vessel of Publish Health is rent open, and the drug companies are selling us high-priced pots of caulk”.