Life Expectancy

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Life expectancy is the average number of years a person can expect to live given existing mortality patterns, and considers the most fundamental health question: “How long can I expect to live?”

As a measure of health, life expectancy has the key advantage of being readily comparable across nations and regions. As such, life expectancy, and especially life expectancy at birth, is one of the most commonly used indicators of a population’s general health status.

Nonetheless, it should be recognised that life expectancy is a measure of length of life rather than quality of life, as it does not account for the full burden of illness and disability. Development of indicators such as ‘disability-adjusted life years’ and ‘healthy life expectancy’ is progressing, though time series data are generally not available as yet.

Many factors have contributed to improvements in health and life expectancy outcomes, and it has been recognised for some time that the social determinants of health play a critical role. The social determinants of health are the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age, and include aspects such as nutrition, sanitation, water supply and living conditions as well as the health system. These factors are shaped by the distribution of money, power and resources at global, national and local levels, which are themselves influenced by policy choices. Advances in medical technology have also been important, especially in the past 50 years.

Since 1950 the life expectancy gap between the world and the Tropics has narrowed from 6.1 years in the period 1950-1955 to 3.5 years in 2005-2010.

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