Economic Human Rights (30): Life Expectancy Throughout History

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economic human rights / health / poverty / statistics / war

How is life expectancy relevant for human rights? High levels of life expectancy can mean a long life of oppression and cruelty, but it’s fair to say that a long life is generally beneficial for human rights, and that low average life expectancy rates are indicators of human rights violations. The longer people life, on average, the more they can do with their lives, and the more they can enjoy their freedom. If people’s lives are shorter, on average, it’s likely that this is because of human rights violations. For example, because:

So it’s useful to note that life expectancy, over the course of human history, has risen sharply, especially during modern times:

life expectancy through the ages

life expectancy through the ages

(source, click on the image to enlarge)

Life expectancy during much of pre-modern history averaged just below 30 years. Part of the reason for such a low figure is that many children died at a very young age, pulling down the average life expectancy. Those who didn’t die young had a good chance of surviving to what we now call “middle age”.

After the Industrial Revolution many more children survived into adulthood and by the beginning of the 20th century average life expectancy in the developed world was close to 50, whereas for the world as a whole it was only around 40 years. The figures now are 78 and 67 respectively. This graph shows the rapid and sudden improvement after centuries of stagnation:

Life Expectancy throughout history, long trend

Life Expectancy throughout history, long trend


The reason for this sudden improvement during and after the industrial revolution is a combination of improved medical technology and higher wealth. Not surprisingly, life expectancy is highly correlated with income levels – more wealth means higher investment in healthcare, less war etc. – but not in a linear fashion: the U.S. has very high GDP per capita but not higher life expectancy than some countries/regions with somewhat lower income levels (some blame the healthcare system, others the life-style choices of many Americans). And, compared to Africa, India has higher life expectancy with similar income levels (the HIV/AIDS epidemic is part of the explanation).



There’s a map comparing life expectancy in the world here. And there are some more statistics on life expectancy here.


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  4. You claim
    “their poverty traps them in a vicious circle of poverty and ill health (and poverty is a human right)”
    So it is the right of every human being to suffer poverty. I agree.
    But to claim

    “their healthcare isn’t provided for (and healthcare is a human right)”

    is difficult to understand. If “health care” is a “human right”, then someone has to suply such care. Who has the RESPONSIBILITY to supply “healthcare” to everyone else? And why do those suppliers have such responsibility?

    Taking away from every human the responsibility to look after themselves effectively makes them slaves again. It is an insult.

    • bronxite10 says

      Is Dr A Kruger his brother’s keeper? Not if he could help it. Why the very idea that he should be his brother’s keeper is an “insult” to the brother and makes the kept brother a “slave”. What he really means is that what happens to his brother is not Dr A Kruger’s problem. So much for the Judeo-Christian traditions of Western Civilization. Love thy neighbor as thyself? Not for Dr. A Kruger. Dr. A. Kruger thinks God was hindered by His unfortunate need to be politically correct and strongly suspects that God is just another damned liberal.

      • Dear, dear Bronxite, how on planet earth do you come to these interpretative conclusions? It totally, utterly defies explanation. I treat more than half my patients for free, even buy their medicines where necessary. But that is my choice. It is not imposed upon me by some big burly bungling bureaucrat wasting the bulk of resources with only a tiny portion getting through to where it is needed..

  5. Of course you have the different levels of untruths: Lies, Damn Lies, Statistics.
    In 1850, white males aged 80 expected to live on average 5.9 more years.
    In 2004, this has risen to 8.1 years.

    What we have conquered to some extent is “Excess mortality”, affecting statistical average life expectancy.. we have not really been able to do much about individual life expectancy.
    Most of the oldest of the old have never needed meaningful medical intervention.

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