Life expectancy rising, but UN report shows ‘major’ rich-poor longevity divide persists

An elderly Mongolian herder drinks fermented mare’s milk in Ulaanbaatar. Photo: World Bank/Dave Lawrence

15 May 2014 – People everywhere are living longer, the United Nations health agency today reported, mostly because fewer children are dying, certain diseases are in check, and tobacco use is down, but conditions in low-income countries continue to plague life quality there.

According to the UN World Health Organization’s (WHO) World Health Statistics 2014, a girl born in 2012 can expect to live around 73 years and a boy to the age of 68. That is six years longer than the average life span for a child in 1990.

With one year to go until the 2015 target date for achieving the anti-poverty targets known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), substantial progress has been made on many health-related goals, the report authors wrote.

“The global target of halving the proportion of people without access to improved sources of drinking water was met in 2010, with remarkable progress also having been made in reducing child mortality, improving nutrition, and combating HIV, tuberculosis and malaria,” the report states.

WHO’s statistics show that low-income countries have made the greatest progress, with an average increase in life expectancy by 9 years from 1990 to 2012. The top six countries where life expectancy increased the most were Liberia which saw a 20-year increase (from 42 years in 1990 to 62 years in 2012) followed by Ethiopia (from 45 to 64 years), Maldives (58 to 77 years), Cambodia (54 to 72 years), Timor-Leste (50 to 66 years) and Rwanda (48 to 65 years).

Nevertheless, nearly 18,000 children worldwide died every day in 2012, according to the findings, with large inequities remaining in child mortality between high-income and low-income countries.

“There is still a major rich-poor divide: people in high-income countries continue to have a much better chance of living longer than people in low-income countries,” said Director-General of the UN World Health Organization (WHO) Margaret Chan.

Women live longer than men in general, but in high-income countries the difference is around six years, while in low-income countries, the average falls to three years.

The findings among children are even more glaring. A girl born in 2012 in a high-income country can expect to live to the age of around 82, which is 19 years longer than a girl born in a low-income country. The difference for boys is 16 years.

Geographically, women in Japan live the longest, with an average life expectancy of 87 years, followed by Spain, Switzerland and Singapore at 85 years. The average lifespan of men is highest in Iceland at 81 years.

“In high-income countries, much of the gain in life expectancy is due to success in tackling noncommunicable diseases,” said Ties Boerma, Director of the Department of Health Statistics and Information Systems at WHO.

“Fewer men and women are dying before they get to their 60th birthday from heart disease and stroke. Richer countries have become better at monitoring and managing high blood pressure for example,” he added.

Declining tobacco use is also a key factor in helping people live longer in several countries.

At the other end of the scale, life expectancy for both men and women is still less than 55 years in nine sub-Saharan African countries, including Angola, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lesotho, Mozambique, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

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