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Researchers examine the decline in average body temperature among healthy adults over the past two decades

In the nearly two centuries since German physician Carl Wunderlich established 98.6°F (37 C) as the standard "normal" body temperature, it has been used by parents and doctors alike as the measure by which fevers—and often the severity of illness—have been assessed.

Over time, however, and in more recent years, lower body temperatures have been widely reported in healthy adults. A 2017 study among 35,000 adults in the United Kingdom found average body temperature to be lower (97.9°F / 36.6 C), and a 2019 study showed that the normal body temperature in Americans (those in Palo Alto, California, anyway) is about 97.5°F (36.4 C).

A multinational team of physicians, anthropologists and local researchers led by Michael Gurven, UC Santa Barbara professor of anthropology and chair of the campus's Integrative Anthropological Sciences Unit, and Thomas Kraft, a postdoctoral researcher in the same department, have found a similar decrease among the Tsimane, an indigenous population of forager-horticulturists in the Bolivian Amazon. In the 16 years since Gurven, co-director of the Tsimane Health and Life History Project, and fellow researchers have been studying the population, they have observed a rapid decline in average body temperature—0.09°F per year, such that today Tsimane body temperatures are roughly 97.7°F (36.5 C).

"In less than two decades we're seeing about the same level of decline as that observed in the U.S. over approximately two centuries," said Gurven. Their analysis is based on a large sample of 18,000 observations of almost 5,500 adults, and adjust for multiple other factors that might affect body temperature, such as ambient temperature and body mass.

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