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The Worldwide Evolution of Life Expectancy

Life expectancy in Angola, Ethiopia, Niger and Rwanda has increased by 10-15 years since 1990.

by
Theodore Dalrymple

Bio

December 29, 2012 - 7:00 am
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Of course, it is easier to produce dramatic improvements starting from a low base; where infant mortality rates are high, it is relatively easy to extend life expectancy. And in fact the worldwide death rate of children under the age of 9 has fallen by nearly two thirds since 1970. This is in complete contradiction to the gloomy prognostications of that time, when many so-called savants predicted perpetual mass famine. If freedom from mortal disease is part of the good life, the world has been improving at an unprecedented rate. In 1970, 50 percent of males born could expect to live to 65 years; by 2010, 50 percent could expect to live to 73. The figures for females were 70 and 79, respectively. Men can expect to live longest in Switzerland, Australia Sweden, Iceland, and Israel; women in Japan, France, Iceland, Spain, and Switzerland. Women in Japan have the longest life expectancy of all: over 85 years.

The paper makes clear – implicitly, not explicitly – that some inequalities are more unequal than others. Throughout the 40 years under consideration, the health, or at any rate the life expectancy, of women has improved faster than that of men. The gap between the sexes in life expectancy widened from 4.8 to 5.7 years. The decline in death rates between 1970 and 2010 was lowest for males between the ages of 20 and 39, only 19.7 percent. The main reason for this relatively low rate of decline, according to the authors, was the propensity of young men to have fatal accidents, partly no doubt because of their occupations, but also because of their risk-taking behavior.

At the Women’s Conference in Peking some years ago, I heard a British government minister demand complete equality between the sexes in everything. Did this mean we should be trying to reduce the number of fatal accidents among men, or increase the number among women? From the purely egalitarian point of view, it would not matter which. From the Rawlsian point of view, I suppose, the improvements of the last forty years represent a deterioration, since the position of the worst off (males) has worsened by comparison with that of the best off (women): that is, if a longer life is better than a shorter one.

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Images courtesy shutterstock / Henrik Larsson / Lyudmyla Kharlamova

Related at PJ Lifestyle from Dr. Dalrymple:

The Sleep-Deprived Doctor Saving Your Life

As Life Expectancy Increases Will the Elderly Become a Greater ‘Burden on Society’?

Should Doctors Lie to Their Patients About Their Survival Chances?

How Doctors Turn Their Patients into Drug Addicts

BREAKING NEWS: Study Confirms Natural Disasters Make People Unhappy

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Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His new book is Second Opinion: A Doctor's Notes from the Inner City.
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