Live Longer and Prosper

Average U.S. life expectancy decreased by more than one year in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But if history is any guide, the prospects for human longevity look more promising.

That’s the core message of the four-part series, Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer, which debuts tomorrow, May 11, at 8 pm ET on PBS stations (but check local listings for channel and time in your area) and via pbs.org and the PBS Video app.

The three remaining episodes will premiere subsequent Tuesdays through June 1.

Using the Covid crisis as a backdrop, author Steven Johnson and historian-broadcaster David Olusoga review 300 years of medical innovations that led to the doubling of the human lifespan in less than a century. The show walks through earlier efforts to conquer global pandemics – including smallpox, cholera, the Spanish flu and others – and how the lessons learned produced revolutions in public health.

The series also seeks to highlight inequalities in health access.

Episode topics include:

“Vaccines” (May 11) presents the history of vaccination, starting with early uses in Africa and importation to America during the slave trade. It also traces public resistance to vaccines that began in the 19th century and continues today.

“Data” (May 18) looks at the emergence of fact-based research, data mapping and analysis.

“Medicine” (May 25) covers the development of treatments, particularly antibiotics, and antiviral drugs for HIV.

“Behavior” (June 1) tackles public safety measures, including the discovery that such steps as handwashing, facemasks and lockdowns save lives.  

The series is produced by Nutopia, a maker of non-fiction programs.

Johnson’s book, Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer, also goes on sale May 11. Johnson is the author of 12 books, including The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic.

(Top image source: YouTube video)

About Larry Greenberg

A former local beat reporter and film critic, co-founder Lawrence Greenberg has more than 25 years’ experience as a writer and public relations executive.

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