We’re living longer, but with years of illness

Average life expectancy has risen by a decade since 1970. Picture: Getty
Average life expectancy has risen by a decade since 1970. Picture: Getty
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Average life expectancy around the world has increased by around a decade since 1970, new research has shown.

But while people are living longer, they are also more likely to be struggling with chronic disease and disability.

New estimates from the Global Burden of Disease Study show that, worldwide, men’s average lifespan rose from 56.4 years in 1970 to 67.5 in 2010.

That of women increased by more than 12 years from 61.2 to 73.3.

However, the gulf in life expectancy between the richest and poorest countries is largely unchanged at around 40 years.

In 2010, Japanese women had the longest life expectancy at birth in the world, living to an average age of 85.9.

For men, Iceland topped the longevity table. An Icelandic man born in 2010 could expect to reach his 80th birthday.

The biggest increase in lifespan since 1970 was seen in the Maldives, where men’s life expectancy rose by 54.4 per cent and women’s by 57.6 per cent. Average age at death for women in the Indian Ocean island nation went up from 51 to 80.4.

Other rapid gains in life expectancy of more than 20 years occurred in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Iran and Peru. However, it was a different story in southern sub-Saharan Africa, where men’s life expectancy decreased by 1.3 years between 1970 and 2010, and women’s by almost a year.

In Lesotho, the average life expectancy of a man born in 2010 was just 44. The lot of men was even worse in the Central African Republic where average male life expectancy in 2010 was 43.6 years.

Haiti had the lowest life expectancy anywhere – just 32.5 years for men and 43.6 for women – but this was almost entirely due to the devastating earthquake that struck the country in January 2010.

There was better news from some other sub-Saharan African countries. Men in Angola had experienced a 31.9 per cent increase in life expectancy since 1990, from 43.9 years to 57.9, while women’s life expectancy rose by 23.6 per cent. Ethiopia and Rwanda also saw big life expectancy gains over the same ten-year period.

The lifespan study was one of a series of Global Burden of Disease papers published in The Lancet medical journal.

One striking finding was that while deaths among children under five declined by almost 60 per cent since 1970, the number of people dying between the ages of 15 and 49 shot up by 44 per cent.

Dr Haidong Wang, one of the authors from the University of Washington in Seattle, US, said: “As more children are now surviving to adulthood compared with earlier decades, policy-makers will need to pay more 
attention to preventing deaths in young adults.”

The study identified a major shift around the world from premature death to longer lives blighted by disability.

Dr Chris Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, said: “There’s a series of diseases that don’t kill you very often but cause an awful lot of disability.”

“Very few people are walking around with perfect health.”