China's Expanding Life Spans—and Waistlines

Overweight students exercise in a gym during a weight-loss summer camp in Weifang of Shandong Province, China Photograph by Wang Zhide/ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

Over the past two decades, China’s population has grown richer, older, more urban—and fatter. From 1990 to 2010, public health authorities in China made significant progress in stemming several of the medical challenges common in poor countries, including reducing childhood mortality and rates of infectious diseases. However, China’s population now faces additional health pitfalls exacerbated by urban smog, more sedentary lifestyles, and the rise of KFC and cheap fast food.

In short, China’s public-health challenges now look more like America’s, for better and worse. That was a main finding of researchers at the Chinese Center for Disease Prevention and Control, Peking Union Medical College, and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, which published a collaborative paper on public health in China in the June 8 issue of the British medical journal the Lancet. Their findings draw upon data in the World Health Organization’s 2010 Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study.

From 1970 to 2010, the average life span for men in China climbed 12.5 years (to age 72.9). The average lifespan for women climbed 15.5 years (to age 79). A major factor behind these gains has been a steep drop in childhood mortality, due in part to improved neonatal and maternal care. In 1970, 100.6 children out of a thousand died in China before they reached age 5; by 2010, that number had dropped to 12.9 deaths per thousand. (Meanwhile, even as people are living longer, fewer are being born: The average number of children born to each woman in China dropped from 4.77 to 1.64 over those 40 years.) The result is a quickly graying country.

At the same time that young children in China are generally healthier—with fewer premature deaths from neonatal causes, diarrhea, pneumonia, and infectious diseases—new ailments are increasingly befalling the country’s middle-aged and elderly populations. On the rise: premature deaths from stroke, heart disease, traffic injuries, lung cancer, liver cancer, colorectal cancer, and diabetes. Several—but not all—of these conditions are related to urban living, changing diets and lifestyles, smoking, and pollution exposure.

The medical researchers tallied the top five risk factors for long-term disability in China: poor diet (too little fruit; too much salt and fat); high blood pressure; tobacco smoking; exposure to ambient air pollution (smog); and exposure to indoor air pollution (from coal and wood-burning stoves). Also among the top 10 risk factors: high body mass, low physical activity, and heavy alcohol consumption.

President Xi Jinping’s ongoing campaign to curb lavish government banquets and alcohol consumption is aimed at reducing the appearance of official privilege in China, but it’s not bad health advice, either.