Statistics on Life Expectancy

Content

1. Life expectancy as a human rights issue
2. Evolution of life expectancy
3. Life expectancy and income
4. Life expectancy and health care spending
5. Global disparities
6. National disparities

1. Life expectancy as a human rights issue

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:

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2. Evolution of life expectancy

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

(source, click on the image to enlarge)

Our early ancestors lived on average till the age of 30. High infant mortality rates were an important reason for this disappointing prospect. So it’s not as if people 30.000 years ago never lived until what we now call “old age”. But it wasn’t as common as now. One had to be very lucky, and continuously so during a whole lifetime. Early death wasn’t the only risk; disease, famine, cold and conflict were just as lethal.

Over a period of 30 millennia, until basically the Victorian age and the end of the 19th century, there wasn’t much improvement. Victorians lived on average until they were 40. The reasons for early death did change however. The risks associated with a hunter/gatherer lifestyle were replaced in many parts of the world with problems caused by settled and urban life (e.g. fecal contamination of water, contagious diseases and diseases carried by insects; war and violence of course remained omnipresent and became more lethal with the advances in technology). These problems were only partially compensated by better agriculture. Most improvements in healthcare had still to come.

Here’s an animated graph from Gapminder, which only starts in 1800 but it does show that nothing much happened to life expectancy over the entire 19th century. There also wasn’t a lot of difference between the different parts of the world. Pre-20th century history was in fact a history of global equality in life expectancy, albeit an inequality in misery. Only by the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century do we see rates going up in Europe and North America, briefly interrupted by the two World Wars (you can clearly see the effect of the wars in the animation):

life expectancy 19th 20th century

(BLUE = AFRICA, ORANGE = EUROPE AND CENTRAL ASIA, YELLOW = AMERICA, RED = EASTERN ASIA AND OCEANIA, GREEN = MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA, LIGHT BLUE = SOUTHERN ASIA)

(source)

The strong improvements which Westerners experienced since the beginning of the 20th century – and which resulted from better healthcare, better technology and sanitation, and increased prosperity – also lead to a widening of global inequality in life expectancy compared to the centuries before. The rest of the world only starts to improve during the decades after WWII, and does not reach levels close to the West until the first decade of the 21st century; or at least that’s the case for the non-African parts of the non-Western world (HIV has wreaked havoc in much of Africa).

Russia is a relative disappointment for a European country (in the graph above, Russia is the medium sized orange ball that can’t follow the other orange and yellow balls).The opposite is true for Japan (medium red ball doing better than the other red balls). After WWII, Japan sprints past the rest and ends up above everyone else in 2012, although even before WWII it outperformed its East Asian neighbors. China (big red ball) has made strong progress recently, especially when compared to many relatively wealthier Latin American countries (small to medium yellow balls, not to be confused with the medium yellow ball which does very well and which is the US). If you look carefully you can see the spectacular drop in life expectancy in China around 1960, the period of the Great Leap Forward. If you watch even more carefully, you can see the drop in Russia after the end of the Soviet Union.

Overall, India and Sub-Saharan Africa continue to disappoint.

This graph shows the rapid and sudden improvement after centuries of stagnation:

Life Expectancy throughout history, long trend

(source)

Global life expectancy rose by 20 years over the past 60 years. In other words, life expectancy goes up by 7 hours every day (source). Even the poorest regions in the world have seen dramatic improvements. Life expectancy at birth in sub-Saharan Africa increased on average by 16 years, from 40 years in 1960 to 56 years in 2011.

life expectancy at birth

(source)

large

oecd1

Here are some recent numbers for the US:

life expectancy in the US

(source)

life expectancy in the US

(source)

And how the US compares to similar countries:

us+health+1

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3. Life expectancy and income

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 U.S. 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).

demographic-change_income-vs-life-expectancy

(source)

lifeexpectancy-e1385589059748

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4. Life expectancy and healthcare spending

There’s a clear correlation (when removing the U.S.) between levels of spending on healthcare and life expectancy:

health care spending and life expectancy correlation

(source, click on the image to enlarge)

oecd2

health spending and life expectancy

(source)

The United States spends more than any other country on health care, but US life expectancy at birth ranked 40th for males and 39th for females globally in 2010 (source). This relatively low level of life expectancy in the US, compared to similar countries, is a recent phenomenon:

20130713_woc105_0

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5. Global disparities

Of course, the most important disparities are between non-similar countries. Although life expectancy has risen everywhere during the last decades – in 1900 average life expectancy at birth for the world as a whole was only around 30 years, and in rich countries under 50; the figures now are 67 and 78 respectively – huge differences between regions still exist. The HIV/AIDS epidemic has caused a serious deterioration in Africa these last years. Life expectancy for men and women in Sub-Saharan Africa is 53 and 55 years respectively.

WHO-Life-Exepectancy-800x512

life expectancy 1950-2005

And it’s not just between very rich and very poor countries that there are different life expectancy rates. In the U.S., life expectancy is about 78.5 years, whereas in Japan it’s 83.4. Differences such as these may be the result not so much of human rights violations but rather of individual behavior. 80% of American adult males are overweight compared to only 30% of Japanese. The U.S. is falling behind:

life-expectancy-chart

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6. National disparities

Life expectancy rates don’t only differ from one country to another. Different groups within the same country can also have diverging life expectancies. Take the case of the US, an example that can illustrate the link between life expectancy and human rights. Although national rates of life expectancy for American men and women have risen over the last two decades, women in many parts of the U.S. are now living less long than 25 years ago:

female life expectancy in the US

(source, click image to enlarge)

This may be a symptom of bad lifestyles or unhealthy habits, but it may also be caused by deficient healthcare, poverty, a lack of education, gender discrimination etc., in which case it becomes a human rights issue (living standard, health and education are human rights).

This is the same map for men:

male life expectancy in the US

(source, click image to enlarge)

Only in very few places has life expectancy for men decreased. The fact that the same isn’t true for women indicates that there’s something more going on than just lifestyles and the habit choices. After all, women’s lifestyles aren’t particularly more self-destructive than men’s.

Another map:

US life expectancy by county, male

(source)

Different race groups in the US also exhibit different life expectancy rates. For example, this study shows that the life expectancy gap between the 3.4 million high-risk urban black males and the 5.6 million Asian females was 20.7 years in 2001.

SDT-racial-relations-08-2013-03-07

See also these graphs:

Life Expectancy Across Social Groups in the US

It’s not just gender and race, but also income and wealth which determine the length of one’s life:

life expectancy by economic status

(source)

Education levels as well determine life expectancy. Look at the graph below

showing the breakdown of life expectancy at birth just for white females. Notice three things. First, the current gap between most and least educated women is more than 10 years. Second, the gap actually widened by several years between 1990 and 2008. Third, the gap widened mainly because of a reduction in life expectancy at the bottom, rather than faster gains at the top. (source)

US white females life expectancy by years of education

US white females life expectancy by years of education

(source)

Life expectancy for least-educated whites in the US has fallen by four years since 1990. White women without a high school diploma lost five years of life between 1990 and 2008. By 2008, life expectancy for black women without a high school diploma had surpassed that of white women of the same education level (source).

life expectancy in the US

(source)

life expectancy and education

(source)

The provision of adequate healthcare also makes a difference. See these two neighboring counties in Florida, which have both a large difference in life expectancy and a difference in the number of doctors per capita:

regional disparities in life expectancy

(source, click image to enlarge)

The causes of group disparities like these are other types of disparities:

  • differences in health care access and utilization (through differences in health insurance and different access to good quality medical facilities)
  • different homicide rates
  • different HIV rates
  • differences in nutritional behavior and food availability (see the concept of “food deserts”)
  • different poverty rates
  • etc.

Here’s a graph of regional difference in China:

regional disparities in life expectancy in china

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