4 Surprising Things That Have Kept Us Alive

Turns out cotton is literally the fabric of our lives

By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff

Posted Sep 15, 2013 8:03 AM CDT

(Newser) – In a piece last week on Slate, Laura Helmuth took a long and interesting look at what she dubs "the most important difference between the world today and 150 years ago": the doubling of our lifespan, from about 40 years to about 80. She looked at the big reasons why, of which you probably could come up with a few—like vaccines, clean water, refrigeration. But Helmuth's fascinating follow-up piece takes things a step further, and her headline says it all: "Fourteen Oddball Reasons You're Not Dead Yet." Here are our favorite four:

  • Cotton: Before we started wearing cotton we wore wool, which was tougher to clean. That made it a more welcoming home for body lice, which spread one of history's big killers: typhus.
  • Satellites: Helmuth is referring to the weather-observing kind, which alert us to hurricanes with enough time to prepare and, importantly, evacuate. To wit, she cites a 1900 hurricane that killed 8,000 in Galveston. Hurricane Ike brought a higher storm surge in 2008, but the Texas Department of State Health Services identified just 74 deaths.
  • Window screens: They keep out houseflies, and that has saved us from more than just some hand-swatting. Though Helmuth acknowledges that clean water and sewage treatment were the biggest factors in squashing the spread of potentially fatal diarrhea, flies were also a vector.
  • Shoes: If you think disease-carrying flies sound gross, well, meet hookworms. These parasites find their way from the feces of an infected person (which were ostensibly on the ground) and into the body of another person through the feet. They did so frequently in the Southeast before wearing shoes became an encouraged practice.
Head to Slate for the other 10 items on her list, which includes the residents of Framingham, Mass.

In this photo taken Sept. 5, 2012, cotton grows in a field near Coy, Ark. Arkansas cotton acreage is down sharply in 2013, putting pressure on the state's cotton gins.
In this photo taken Sept. 5, 2012, cotton grows in a field near Coy, Ark. Arkansas cotton acreage is down sharply in 2013, putting pressure on the state's cotton gins.   (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
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