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Why Your Ancestors’ Life Expectancy Matters to You

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Why Your Ancestors’ Life Expectancy Matters to You

A death in the family can be tragic, but the passing of ancestors and distant relatives can also be a rich source of information for anyone trying to understand their family history and their own place in it.

The Family Facts page on Ancestry gives you another helpful starting point for your search into your genealogy. The page will give you the meaning and linguistic origin of your surname along with several other pieces of information, including rates of immigration, U.S. states of where people with your name have settled, and life expectancy.

Ancestry draws its life expectancy information from the government’s U.S. Social Security Death Index for the years 1935-2014, a database of people with Social Security numbers whose deaths have been reported to the Social Security Administration, usually by a survivor requesting benefits.

Life expectancy information can reveal fascinating insights into your family name and the society in which your family lived. The surname Washington, for example, provides a glimpse into the history of American slavery and its lingering effects. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 90 percent of people with the surname “Washington” were African-American, a far higher percentage than for any other common name.

After emancipation former slaves had the chance to choose surnames. Many chose “Washington,” the foremost Founding Father and well known at the time for having freed his slaves in his will. Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is Booker T. Washington, who was born into slavery in 1856 and became a leading black educator and leader in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 75 percent of people living in the U.S. with the last name Jefferson — another Founding Father — were African-American.

Knowing that about the surnames Washington and Jefferson, adds further insight to another item on the Family Facts page, which shows that the life expectancy for people names Washington and Jefferson lags below the national average. The gap between life expectancy for whites and blacks in America is closing, but it still exists, and you can see it reflected in surnames.

Other names reflect more recent events in American history. Nguyen is a common Vietnamese surname that reflects the name of a major Vietnamese royal dynasty. The life expectancy of Nguyen family members dipped after 1975, when many of them, traumatized and impoverished by the Vietnam war, arrived in the United States as refugees.

Life expectancy information, like each piece of information on the Ancestry Family Facts page, serves as a portal to records drawn from the 15 billion documents in Ancestry databases.

Life expectancy information for your surname, for example, leads to a search page for the U.S. Social Security Death Index for the years 1935-2014. The index can provide a valuable piece of information: a Social Security number. That number can lead you to an individual’s Social Security application or claims file, which in turn can unearth a trove of information such as a birthplace, a maiden name, or parents’ names. Finding a birth and death date and Social Security number can also help obtain a death certificate or obituary. The index can also locate a person’s last residence and the location of surviving beneficiaries.

Everyone living today has an ancestor who died in the past. The passing of those individuals may provide the information you need to start — or complete — your family history.

You can search your own surname on the Family Facts page or take advantage of a 14-day free trial from Ancestry to see if your own family is “above average.”

Sign up for your 14-day free trial and discover your family’s history today