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Increasing life expectancy: people are getting older and older

Around 100 years ago people lived to the age of 30 on average. Now more and more people are reaching their 100th birthday. Why is life expectancy increasing globally – and what’s the secret to “ageing well”?

Average global life expectancy is currently 71.5 years. Japanese women liver longer than anyone else in the world, with an average life expectancy of 87. In Sierra Leone, on the other hand, men and women live only to the age of 50 on average. According to the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, people in the predominantly wealthy regions of the world live 17 years more on average than those living in Africa.

The age we live to depends primarily on where and how we live. People die earlier in countries that are badly affected by hunger and armed conflict and that have only poor health care facilities. Here, infectious disease can rapidly become fatal, and women also die much more frequently during childbirth. On the other hand, people live longer if they are prosperous and educated and have access to health care services. But affluence also carries its own risks that reduce life expectancy – if people smoke, abuse alcohol and drugs, eat an unhealthy diet, don’t take enough exercise or are overweight.

Facts and figures on global life expectancy

  • An upward trajectory

    An upward trajectory

    As a global average, today’s generations are likely to live significantly longer than their parents and grandparents – thanks to better health care.

    Source: akzente – The GIZ Magazine

  • A long and healthy life – or a life cut short?

    A long and healthy life – or a life cut short?

    With comprehensive health care, life expectancy in Japan is the highest in the world – 30 years longer than in Sierra Leone.

    Source: akzente – The GIZ Magazine

  • The little difference

    The little difference

    Women live longer than men. Based on global averages, they have a life expectancy of around 73 years, up from 65 years in 1981. Men can expect to live for 69 years, compared with 61 in 1981.

    Source: akzente – The GIZ Magazine

  • High and low expenditure

    High and low expenditure

    Total global spending for health per person per year averages 948 US dollars, ranging from 8,362 dollars in the US to just 12 dollars in Eritrea.

    Source: akzente – The GIZ Magazine

  • High rates, low rates

    High rates, low rates

    Despite major advances in medical care, women are still dying in childbirth – even in Europe, where 16 women die for every 100,000 live births.

    Source: akzente – The GIZ Magazine

  • More or less support

    More or less support

    Almost three quarters of all births are attended by a skilled health worker. In Botswana, the figure is 100 per cent, compared with only 9 per cent in Somalia.

    Source: akzente – The GIZ Magazine

  • Fewer smokers

    Fewer smokers

    In some regions of the world, people are less likely to reach for a cigarette nowadays. In the US, smoking rates have halved since 1980.

    Source: akzente – The GIZ Magazine

  • Less polio

    Less polio

    Thanks to intensive immunisation campaigns, the world is close to eradicating polio. It is now endemic in just three countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.

    Source: akzente – The GIZ Magazine

  • Less HIV/AIDS

    Less HIV/AIDS

    The number of new HIV infections has fallen dramatically from 3.2 million in 2000 to 2.1 million in 2015.

    Source: akzente – The GIZ Magazine

  • Fewer child deaths

    Fewer child deaths

    Child mortality is on the decline. The number of deaths worldwide fell by almost half between 1990 and 2015.

    Source: akzente – The GIZ Magazine

Medical progress and better living conditions

Over the next few years the proportion of the world’s population aged over 60 will increase dramatically. The main reason why these people live to an advanced age is better medical care. What’s more, in industrial and emerging economies at least, fewer and fewer people have to engage in hard physical labour to earn a living, which means that they stay physically fit for longer. But average life expectancy is also increasing because the rate of infant mortality has fallen across the world.

Link between income and life expectancy

It’s not only in developing countries that life expectancy is influenced by social status. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that life expectancy in China, for example, varies widely depending on people’s level of education and income. Men aged 55 who have a university degree or college qualifications live around 20 per cent longer than those of the same age who have a lower level of education. And people with higher incomes live 37 per cent longer on average than their fellow compatriots who earn less.

Hans Rosling was a Swedish Professor of International Health at Karolinska Institute and the co-founder and chairman of the Gapminder Foundation, which developed the Trendalyzer software system. In this short video he shows that people live longer in countries with a high Gross domestic product (GDP) per capita:

Video: Hans Rosling – How Does Income Relate to Life Expectancy?

Good health is the key to ageing well

How desirable is it to reach an advanced age? It depends on how we become older. None of us would wish to spend the years between our 80th and 100th birthdays bedridden, weak and demented. Remaining in good health is vital if we are to live well in our old age. Nowadays there are many 70 year-olds who are as fit as a 40 year-old, while others in their 70s need round-the-clock care. So there’s no such thing as a typical older person.

The elderly themselves are not the only ones who benefit from staying as healthy as possible – society overall benefits too because ultimately increasing life expectancy shouldn’t put too much of a burden on the health care system. Many people are afraid of this happening, yet the WHO hasn’t found any significant link between ageing societies and increasing health care expenditure.

At the same time, we need to invest in the “60+ generation”. The WHO calls on all countries to gear their health care systems to the needs of the elderly, devise systems for long-term care and create an age-friendly living environment.

DW interview with Prof. Dr. Bernd Kleine-Gunk about what we can do to stay younger for longer.

Long, longer, eternal life?

What age will people live to in 20 years’ time? And how will they then live? Scientists aren’t yet able to predict whether the ageing trend will continue or not. According to the Berlin Institute for Population and Development there’s evidence that we could reach our biological limit at some point and life expectancy could therefore stop increasing.

Optimists remain convinced that there are people alive already who could in principle reach the age of 150, but that’s a rather pessimistic scenario for the development of the world population. Experts fear that the earth’s resources won’t stretch to feeding the expected global population of almost 10 billion in 2050. A greater number of older people adding to the population would only make the situation even worse. Yet in America’s Silicon Valley high-tech companies such as Calico are currently turning their attention to the quest for eternal life. Google founder Larry Page doesn’t just want to stop the ageing process – he wants to stop death being inevitable too.

But can we really aim for immortality? The human race would do well to look first at taking care of everybody’s health and well-being so that global life expectancy can increase. In practical terms, that means minimising health hazards, reducing infant and maternal mortality and improving medical care, especially in less developed countries. And perhaps the person who manages to achieve that should be rewarded with immortality.

Demographic change: active in the future

Tell us how you feel about age and ageing: When are we old? How old would you like to become? And how would you like to age? Our Community group “The World of Tomorrow” is dealing with the topic of “Demographic change: active in the future” – we look forward to your comments!

Community discussion

Author: Susanne Reiff, to the point communication

September 2017

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