If you survived the diseases that threatened your childhood, you were at risk from other diseases and infection caused by poor hygiene, and a lack of understanding about the causes and treatment of disease. Aside from disease, you were further at risk from the environment of work - toiling in fields or factories under what seem like positively inhumane conditions from today's perspective. While old age was hardly unknown before the twentieth century, it was the exception rather than the rule.
Medical advances in our understanding of the biological sciences and technological improvements mean that what were once deadly conditions have been relegated to being days off work. Some diseases - most famously smallpox - have effectively been made extinct by our efforts, and can no longer threaten our lives. In addition, the risks posed by working with Excel spreadsheets are far lower than those you might encounter while working at a steel furnace. Barring accidents, most of can expect to live well into our 70s or 80s and by some estimates children born today can look forward to a reasonable chance of living to see our their century. The ONS estimate that the population of people living to be 100 will have increased from 12,000 in 2010 to 160,000 by 2040.
Despite this relentless advance in apparent health improvement, we are routinely treated to lurid newspaper headlines about threats to our health posed by 'new' strains of old diseases or by our lifestyle choices. We are told we must eat 'five a day'.... avoid certain kinds of fat... exercise a certain amount of time each day... cook particular foods in particular ways and carefully pick our way through a raft of lifestyle choices if we are not to die horribly young. Some of us are almost paralysed with fear about the dangers of second hand smoking, drinking during pregnancy or eating fast food.
As well as a general milieu of health threats, we are routinely presented with food scares and the threat of pandemic disease. Salmonella, BSE, AIDs and Avian Flu have all been hyped as potential sources of mass death and yet dire predictions have failed to come true at every turn.
In this section, we'll take a look at some historical predictions and overstatements made about our health and consider whether some 'well known facts' are actually little more than myths akin to those that drove the doctors of earlier times to believe in spirits and bad airs.