40 Ways We’re Healthier Today Than We Were 40 Years Ago
We're smoking less, getting vaccinated more, and living longer.
Just four decades ago, Americans smoked heavily, trans fats lurked in many of our favorite foods, and pollution was so bad that some of our rivers weren’t just unsafe to swim in—they actually caught fire. Fortunately, we’ve gotten smarter about our health in the intervening decades, making major strides in cleaning up everything from the foods we’re eating to the air we breathe.
Even if you feel like you were meant to be a flower child, you’ll be grateful to be living in the modern age after learning just how much healthier we are today than we were 40 years ago.
Average Life Expectancy Is Higher
Medical advancements, combined with the gradual societal shift toward adopting healthier habits, is reflected in the CDC’s life expectancy statistics. In 2015, the average life expectancy for men and women in the United States was 76.3 years and 81.1 years, respectively, while in 1980, it was just 70 years and 77.4 years.
There Are Fewer Smokers
You don’t need to be a public health official to understand that less smoking is a good thing for Americans’ health. In 1978, a whopping 36 percent of Americans identified as smokers. In 2018, just 16 percent did, according to Gallup. Even the American Cancer Society attributed the 27 percent decline in cancer death rates from 1991 to 2016 to “steady reductions in smoking and advances in early detection and treatment.”
We Have a Vaccine For Hepatitis B
The hepatitis B virus wasn’t discovered until the mid-1960s, and it wasn’t until 1981 that the FDA approved a vaccine for the dangerous liver infection. The broad administration of the vaccine has caused the number of hepatitis B cases to drop by more than 80 percent since the 1970s, and as a happy side effect, liver cancer rates have gone down as well.
And a Vaccine For Chickenpox
In the 1970s, getting chickenpox was just another part of growing up. Nowadays, though, the itchy illness formally known as varicella is much less common, thanks to a vaccination that was brought to the United States in 1995. According to the CDC, the varicella vaccination prevents more than 3.5 million chickenpox cases every year in the US alone, which in turn prevents the youth of America from developing shingles in the future.
Hospitals Have MRI Machines
Magnetic resonance imaging machines, or MRI machines, use magnetic fields and radio waves to look inside your body, allowing doctors to more effectively diagnose patients’ health issues. Today, hospitals nationwide rely on MRIs to examine everything from tears to tumors—but before 1977, such scans did not exist, meaning potentially deadly conditions could be easily overlooked.
Seat Belts Are Mandatory
If you grew up in the ’60s or ’70s, you probably remember riding in the back seat of your parents’ station wagon sans seat belt. Today, however, a kid riding unbuckled would likely lead to a run-in with the cops. That’s because, in 1983, the United States made it illegal for both drivers and front-seat passengers to be in a moving car without a seat belt, and in 1991, those rules were extended to also include back seat passengers. The law has been an undeniable lifesaving measure: While 44,525 people died in 1975 in motor vehicle accidents, just 37,133 died in 2017, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Nutrition Labels Are Required
In 1990, under President George H. W. Bush, the United States government passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act. Following the passage of this law, almost all products under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) were required to have nutrition labels, and any products that labeled themselves as low-fat, high-fiber, and the like, had to meet FDA regulations for their claims. Thanks to the passage of this law, people have been better able to make informed decisions about the foods they’re eating and companies can no longer make false claims about the healthfulness of their ingredients.
Organic Farming Is More Prevalent
Over the past few decades, the organic food and farming industries have seen some serious growth. And in many cases, eating organic foods means you’re consuming fewer commercial pesticides, many of which have been linked to ailments ranging from asthma to cancer. In the period from 1997 to 2011, the amount of certified organic cropland grew from half a million acres to nearly 5.4 million acres, according to the USDA.
In 2016, a study conducted by the Pew Research Center also found that 73 percent of adults had bought locally-grown produce within the past 30 days and that 68 percent had bought organic food.
Polio Is No Longer a Threat
Thankfully, the paralysis-causing poliovirus is no longer a threat in today’s America. Though polio outbreaks resulted in more than 15,000 cases of paralysis per year in the ’50s, the introduction of vaccinations in 1955 and 1963 gradually reduced the number of polio cases in America until there were none. Per the CDC, no cases of polio originating in the States have been reported since 1979.
Neither Is Smallpox
Once upon a time, smallpox was one of the deadliest diseases you could get. Nowadays, however, getting smallpox is highly, highly unlikely. In 1980, the World Health Organization declared the disease eradicated following an effort by the organization to immunize the world’s population. The last known case in North America occurred in 1952 and the last known case ever occurred in Somalia in 1977, according to the CDC.
Daminozide Is Illegal to Use on Crops
Daminozide was one of the first plant hormones registered for use in the United States in 1963. Though it was originally only approved to be used on potted plants, it was later approved for use on food crops like apples. However, the product’s use on crops soon came into question after scientists tested the chemical on laboratory animals and found that it caused cancer in several organs. Thankfully, manufacturers voluntarily stopped selling their product for use on edible plants in 1989 and the EPA made it illegal to use on food crops shortly thereafter.
We’re Eating Less Red Meat
While Americans consumed an average of 74.9 pounds of beef per year in 1979, that number was down to just 52.3 pounds by 2012 and has continued to drop since. And cutting some of the beef from our diets is likely a major boon to our overall health—the consumption of red meat has been linked to increased rates of colon cancer among women and has even been found to triple the blood concentration of Trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), a chemical linked to heart disease.
Gonorrhea Rates Are Lower
The increasing prevalence of sexual education in schools and online has had an overall positive result: People are having more protected sex than ever before, and getting fewer illnesses because of it. According to one study published in the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections, for instance, gonorrhea rates in the United States have declined 74 percent from 1975 to 1997.
Fewer People Have HIV/AIDS
The first case of the illness that would later be defined as acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) was reported by health-care providers in June of 1981. By 1989, the United States had 117,508 cases of AIDS on record and more than 89,000 deaths attributed to the disease. However, things began to improve by the mid-1990s. In 1997, new anti-HIV therapies hit the market, and AIDS-related deaths in America subsequently dropped by 42 percent.
And People With HIV/AIDS Live Longer
Survival rates among people living with HIV have only gotten better. While patients diagnosed with HIV in the ’70s and ’80s weren’t expected to live more than 20 months with the disease, infected individuals today live an average 22.5 years post-diagnosis, according to research from the University of Bristol.
Cancer Mortality Rates Are Lower
Unfortunately, scientists still haven’t found a cure for cancer. They have, however, invented new therapies that prolong the lives of those with the disease. While the mortality rate for those with cancer was 199 deaths per every 100,000 people in 1975, today it’s 178. And while only 50 percent of cancer patients were expected to survive five years post-diagnosis in 1975, 68 percent percent of patients can expect the same today.
Lead-Based Paint Is Illegal
Before 1978, it was perfectly legal to use lead-based paints in homes. The problem? According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, lead paint can harm the kidneys, nerves, and even cause brain damage when it’s ingested or inhaled. Today, the federal government has a law in place that makes it illegal for a consumer to use any paint that contains lead, and as a result, people are much safer and healthier in their homes. (Houses built before the ’70s may still have lead-based paints on the walls, though, so you should get your house checked out if it was constructed before the lead law was enacted.)
As Is Gas With Lead in It
From 1976 to 1980, the Environmental Protection Agency put policies in place that reduced the amount of lead in gas by half. (Again, even low levels of lead can cause significant damage to the kidneys, brain, and cardiovascular and reproductive systems.) When the EPA compared blood samples from 1976 and blood samples from 1980, they found that the newer samples had 37 percent less lead in them—and based on this data, Congress was persuaded to ban leaded gas entirely.
Most States Have Some Sort of Indoor Smoking Ban
Sorry smokers, but if you want to light up, you’re probably going to have to take it outside. More than half of the US states have comprehensive anti-smoking laws that ban smoking inside workplaces, restaurants, and bars. These laws protect non-smokers from breathing secondhand smoke in enclosed spaces, thus reducing their risk of everything from cancer to heart disease.
There Are Fewer Drunk Driving-Related Deaths
Though car ownership is far more common today than it was in the ’70s and ’80s, people are also generally more responsible on the roads than they were 40 years ago. According to data from the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, the number of drunk driving fatalities decreased 53 percent from 1982 to 2014—and among the population under 21, the number of fatalities has declined 80 percent in the same time frame. Here’s to drinking responsibly!
Several States Have Motorcycle Helmet Laws
Motorcyclists on today’s highways are at least slightly safer, thanks to the helmet laws that govern the majority of states. Right now, 19 states and the District of Columbia have universal helmet laws that require all motorcycle riders to wear helmets, and another 28 states have partial laws that require certain motorcyclists to wear them. Only three states—Illinois, Iowa, and New Hampshire—don’t have any helmet laws in place.
We’re Enjoying More Plant-Based Foods
From 2017 to 2018 alone, a joint report from Nielsen and the Plant-Based Foods Association showed that there was a 20 percent increase in sales of plant-based foods like milk alternatives and meat substitutes. Similarly, data from the Pew Research Center shows that since 1970, the average daily consumption in calories of legumes, nuts, and soy has nearly doubled. These foods are excellent sources of protein, fiber, and a variety of micronutrients and phytochemicals—and, when used as supplements for fattier proteins, can deliver the added benefit of better heart health.
There Are More Vegans and Vegetarians
From 2014 to 2017, the United States saw a staggering 600 percent increase in the number of people who identified as vegan. However, the rise of veganism and vegetarianism has been going on for quite a while. According to the Pew Research Center, people are consuming fewer daily calories from eggs and dairy—thus cutting the cholesterol in their diet—than they were four decades ago.
Cholesterol Levels Are Lower
Statins, the class of drugs used to lower high cholesterol levels, were first discovered in 1976—and thanks to this, cholesterol levels have been gradually decreasing for decades. One study published in JAMA Cardiology, for instance, found that average cholesterol levels in the United States decreased from 204 mg/dL in 1999-2000 to 189 m/dL in 2013-2014.
Heart Transplant Survival Rates Are Higher
Advancements in medical practices and improvements in sanitation have made heart transplantation a much more successful process in recent years. Research published in the journal Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine shows that from the 1970s to the 2000s, one-year survival rates among heart transplant patients rose from 30 percent to almost 90 percent.
Pollution Is Getting Better
Sulfur dioxide pollution is a serious issue that has plagued this world for decades, causing everything from pulmonary edema to death. The good news? Slowly but surely, pollution is plummeting. Data compiled by the University of Oxford shows that while sulfur dioxide emissions in the United States in 1980 reached 30.46 million metric tons, today that number is down to 11.79 million metric tons.
And Fewer People Are Dying From Pollution
In the United States, the number of deaths related to airborne pollutants has noticeably decreased over the past few decades. In 1990, the country saw a pollution-related death rate of 35.63 deaths per 100,000 people, but by 2016, that number dropped to just 19.11 deaths per 100,000 people.
The Majority of People Exercise Regularly
Folks in the 1960s didn’t hit the gym as frequently as we do today. According to a report from Bentley College in Massachusetts, just 24 percent of the adult population in 1960 claimed to exercise on a regular basis. Thankfully, though, today’s society is much more active. Data from the Pew Research Center shows that today, 15 percent of Americans exercise every day and 38 percent exercise a few times a week.
There Are Far More Health Clubs
One of the big factors behind the rise in regularly scheduled exercise is the increase in the number of health clubs in the United States. Since the late ’70s, the United States has seen a more than 600 percent rise in the number of fitness centers nationwide, meaning Americans have more options for finding one that suits them best.
Rates of Childhood Mortality Are Decreasing
With vaccinations on the rise and disease outbreaks on the decline, childhood mortality–particularly among kids under five—has dipped significantly. Data from the UN Population Division reveals that, in 1960, approximately three percent of children in America died before their fifth birthday; in 2015, just 0.7 percent of children in the States died before they turned five.
We Know How to Identify—and Treat—Lyme Disease
Though the first cases of Lyme disease were brought to doctors’ attention in the early 1970s, it wasn’t until 1981 that a scientist named Willy Burgdorfer was able to identify the illness. And since the tick-borne disease wasn’t well-understood until the 1980s, treatment options were nowhere near as advanced as they are today. Though chronic Lyme disease still causes a number of unpleasant symptoms, today most cases of Lyme can be caught early and are easily treated with antibiotics.
Heart Disease is Less Deadly
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in America, but cardiovascular health issues are no longer the death sentence they once were. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the death rate due to stroke has declined by nearly 75 percent since the early ’60s, and more than 70 percent of the increase in longevity among Americans can be attributed to reductions in cardiovascular disease deaths.
Our Water Isn’t Polluted
Forty years ago, America’s water supply was a mess. In the early 1970s, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland was so filthy and polluted that it actually caught on fire—and that wasn’t even the first time it was set ablaze. Thankfully, though, these startling events led to the Clean Water Act, which Congress passed in 1972, and established standards limiting the number of pollutants in our water and therefore improve both our mental and physical health. Data compiled by economists David Keiser and Joseph S. Shapiro even shows that from 1962 to 2001, 12 percent more shares of water became safe for fishing.
Access to Healthy Food Has Increased
Food deserts—areas in which individuals don’t have easy access to grocery stores or other sources of fresh food—are a persistent problem throughout the United States and are linked to poorer eating habits and higher rates of obesity. However, programs like Veggie Vans—mobile markets that deliver fresh fruits and vegetables, particularly to those in vulnerable neighborhoods—are making it easier for people to acquire healthy food than ever.
According to one study published in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, individuals in underserved communities with frequent access to a Veggie Van increased their intake of fruits and vegetables by 1.6 servings per day. Similarly, the increasing availability of grocery delivery, thanks to services like Peapod and Instacart, has made it easier than ever for people to make healthy food a part of their regular routine.
Diabetes Treatment and Management Has Gotten Better
The achievements and advancements in the realm of diabetes research have made it much easier for patients with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes to live relatively healthy and hassle-free lives. In 1993, for instance, scientists discovered that the eye and kidney diseases previously thought to be consequences of diabetes were actually caused by high blood glucose levels. As a result of these findings, both doctors and patients are able to simply monitor and control blood glucose levels and reduce the risk for these ailments.
Birth Control Is More Easily Accessible
Birth control has come a long way since the FDA approved the first pill in 1957 as a menstrual cycle regulator. In 1967, just seven years after the pill was approved as an oral contraceptive, almost 13 million women worldwide were taking it; today, more than 100 million women rely on the pill to keep their periods regular, regulate a variety of hormonal conditions, reduce acne, and prevent pregnancy.
And There Are More Contraceptive Options
The pill. Intrauterine devices. Birth control shots. Birth control implants. Vaginal rings. Today, women have a range of options when it comes to contraception—meaning those with all types of health backgrounds and needs can choose the type that suits them best.
There Is a Vaccine For HPV
According to the Cleveland Clinic, approximately 79 million Americans are currently living with HPV. Though the sexually transmitted disease is usually harmless, certain strains of the virus can cause cancer and other serious diseases. Luckily, in 2006, the FDA approved a vaccine for HPV called Gardasil. Individuals of any gender between the ages of nine and 26 are eligible to receive the vaccine, which can reduce their risk of developing some of the most dangerous HPV strains.
Foods No Longer Contain Manufactured Trans Fats
Artificial trans fats are officially out of the American diet. In 2015, the FDA gave manufacturers three years to eliminate the fats from their products—and on June 18, 2018, their time was up. As trans fats have been linked to high cholesterol and heart disease, this ban has no-doubt made consumers healthier without any changes on their part.
Some Cities Have a “Sugary Drink Tax”
In American cities like San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Seattle, there is something known as a “sugary drink tax” in place that makes it more expensive to buy unhealthy drinks loaded with sugar. Though there is no such law on a federal level, the cities that have enacted these soda taxes so far have seen great success. In Berkeley, California, for instance, soda consumption has dropped by more than 20 percent since the tax took effect.
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