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Global life expectancy gains slow down
February 4, 2018, 4:51 pm

A new study by researchers at John Hopkins University in the United States has found a dramatic slowdown in human life expectancy increases across the world since 1950.

Although a general slowdown in life expectancy growth is expected in high-lifespan countries as average lifespan of the population approaches the biological ceiling of human age, what the study unexpectedly revealed is that the life expectancy slow down, and even decline, was highest in low-lifespan countries that had not even begun to approach the biological limit.

What the study shows is that progress in health technology since 1950 has not been enough to keep longevity increasing at its historic rates in global populations. While new health technology has been essential to making strides in life expectancy, our predecessors in the 1950s were making faster progress with the basics of soap, sanitation and public health.

Researchers examined life expectancy data for 139 countries and for each one calculated the ‘decadal’ life expectancy gain — the gain from a given year to a decade later — during the period 1950-2009. The analysis revealed that for the total sample, the mean decadal gain started at an impressive 9.7 years during the 1950s but fell more or less steadily to just 1.9 years during the 2000s.

When the research team stratified the countries by their life expectancies, they found that the highest lifespan countries, with life expectancies at birth of at least 71 years, declined from a mean decadal gain of 4.8 years in the 1950s to 2.4 years in 2000-2010. That result was unsurprising, given that life expectancies in these countries are approaching the maximum average human lifespan of 71-83 years.

However, the researchers found an even steeper decline in countries in the lowest stratum of lifespan, with life expectancies under 51 years. For countries in this category the mean decadal change in life expectancy dropped continuously from a promising gain of 7.4 years in the 1950s to a worrisome loss of 6.8 years in the 2000s. In other words, the low-lifespan countries on average went from experiencing big gains to sharp declines in life expectancy.

While noting that the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which generally hit hardest in low-lifespan countries, was a factor in this trend, the researcher found that the slowdown in life expectancy gains started before AIDS hit in the 1980s and 90s and occurred even in regions that did not have big problems with this disease. Even giving latitude to modern methods used to calculate life expectancy in recent years did not explain the slowdown trend as it persisted through the 1970s and 2000s when demographers started using more modern methods

The researchers postulate that an important driver of the overall slowdown trend is a widespread failure of governance, especially in fragile states that are reeling under considerable instability. That in turn suggests that global public health efforts need to be about more than providing health technologies. "We need also to promote political will and social consensus for public health measures in the countries that need it most. If the national government is underperforming, public health can act on political will in districts and villages. We used to be good at this and if we can get it back then I think we can again see the kinds of improvements we were seeing in the 1950s, said one researcher.


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