Good times to be born: global life expectancy tops 70 for first time

Climate change, political instability and wars notwithstanding, researchers say these are good times to be born. Worldwide, infants born in 2013 can expect to live on average six years longer than they would have done had they been born nearly 25 years ago, because for the first time on record, researchers say global life expectancy has topped the biblical three score year and 10. In poor countries, experts say gains are from improved health infrastructure. In rich countries, new drugs and other medical advances are increasing lifespans. Here’s hoping lives lost prematurely on the roundabout of wars, conflict and other forms of violence, won’t offset any gains from worldwide swings of medical progress. MS

By Doni Bloomfield

baby
Picture: Counselman Collection / Foter / CC BY-SA

These are good times to be a baby. A child born last year will live six years longer on average than one born in 1990, the first time in history that life expectancy worldwide extends past age 70.

Much of the gain has come from poor countries, where better health infrastructure has helped people live dramatically longer lives, according to a paper published today in the journal Lancet. In rich countries, new drugs and other advances are stretching lifetimes, the study’s authors said.

Eastern sub-Saharan Africans saw a 9.2-year gain in life expectancy between 1990 and 2013, the biggest increase of any region. In some countries, such as Rwanda, Nepal, Niger and Iran, the outlook increased by more than 12 years.

“Outside of Southern Africa, there’s been quite substantial improvement in life expectancy everywhere,” said Dr Christopher Murray, the study’s lead author and a professor at the University of Washington, in Seattle.

Except for 1993, when the worldwide estimate was hurt by genocide in Rwanda, “you can see that global life expectancy, particularly since 2000, has been going up 0.3 of a year, every single year”.

Worldwide, the expected length of life for an infant born last year grew 6.2 years, to 71.5 years old, according to the study, which was sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

HIV, malaria

Researchers found especially large improvements among diseases susceptible to foreign aid and basic public health programs. Deaths caused by diarrhoea and common infectious diseases fell about 50%, and the rate from tropical diseases such as malaria declined about 25%. The ramp up in international aid since 2000 has been particularly important, Murray said in a phone interview.

“It’s very hard to not recognise the contribution of those health-development programs for HIV and malaria. The causal connections there are irrefutable,” Murray said.

Development assistance to poor countries from rich ones surged to more than $120 billion in 2008 from less than $80 billion in 2000, adjusting for inflation, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

While death from violence has fallen – 69% fewer people died from war and conflict as in 1990 –  it is still a scourge in parts of the world. In Syria, about 30,000 people were killed in war there last year, making it the primary cause of years of life lost, a measure of premature death. Violence is the leading cause of years lost in Central Latin America, including in Colombia and Venezuela. Worldwide, suicide fell by 23%.

Though the greatest advances were in developing countries, rich nations also saw gains, particularly by improving interventions for heart disease and cancer. In the US, life expectancy increased 3.5 years as smoking rates fell by almost half, according to the US Surgeon General. An area of concern are chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s and kidney disease, which both saw large increases.

To Murray, the study’s lead author, there’s no reason to think we’re approaching a limit to the surge.

“You’re not even seeing a tailing off in the best-off places,” Murray said.

Australia, for example, has gained 4.8 years of life expectancy since 1990.

“There’s no sign of slowdown yet.” – Copyright 2014 Bloomberg