Global life expectancy increases by five years

BMJ 2016; 353 doi: (Published 19 May 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;353:i2883
  1. Anne Gulland
  1. London

Global life expectancy has increased by five years since 2000, the fastest increase since the 1960s, according to new data published by WHO.1

Global life expectancy for children born in 2015 was 71.4 years, but there were stark differences between countries. The report showed that newborns in 29 countries—all of them high income—had an average life expectancy of 80 years or more, while newborns in 22 others—all of them in sub-Saharan Africa—had life expectancies of less than 60 years.

Japan had the highest life expectancy in the world with 83.7 years for both sexes, followed by Switzerland with 83.4 years, and Singapore, 83.1. The lowest life expectancy in the world was in Sierra Leone, which had a life expectancy of just 50.1 years, followed by Angola at 50.4. The UK’s life expectancy was 81.2 years, compared with the United States’s 79.3 years. The US had only the fourth highest life expectancy in the Americas, after Canada, Chile, and Costa Rica.

Life expectancy fell in Africa in the 1990s because of the AIDS epidemic, and in eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The increase in life expectancy was greatest in WHO’s African region where it increased by 9.4 years to 60 years. This was driven mainly by improvements in child survival, progress in malaria control, and improved access to antiretroviral drugs. In South East Asia life expectancy increased by 3.5 years over the same time period to 71.1 years.

On average, women live longer than men in every country of the world and in every WHO region. Overall, life expectancy in 2015 for females was 73.8 years and for males was 69.1 years. Globally, female life expectancy at birth passed that of males in the 1970s and the difference reached 4.6 years in 2015. Among high income countries, the male to female gap peaked at 6.9 years in the 1990s and has been declining since to reach 5.2 years in 2015.

The report also looked at healthy life expectancy which in 2015 was 63.1 years for both men and women. Healthy life expectancy varied between countries in line with life expectancy. The main contributors to a loss of healthy years were musculoskeletal disorders (with back and neck pain being a major contributor), mental and substance use disorders (particularly depression and anxiety disorders), neurological disorders, vision and hearing loss, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes.

The statistics also highlighted the new sustainable development goals, launched in 2015 to replace the millennium development goals. There were 17 goals and 169 targets, one of which was to reduce the number of deaths before the age of 70 by 40% by 2030. The report said that this was a better indicator than life expectancy as it was easier to have an impact on. However, the report also warned that 53% of deaths around the world were unregistered and progress in improving death registration in developing countries had been slow.

WHO director general Margaret Chan said, “The world has made great strides in reducing the needless suffering and premature deaths that arise from preventable and treatable diseases. But the gains have been uneven. Supporting countries to move towards universal health coverage based on strong primary care is the best thing we can do to make sure no-one is left behind.”


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