People Live Longer as Child Mortality Falls, Treatments Improve

Life expectancy around the world surged in the past two decades as the rate of child mortality declined in Africa and wealthier countries improved monitoring and treatment of chronic diseases such as stroke and cancer.

A girl born in 2012 is expected to live 73 years and a boy 68, six years longer than the average global life expectancy for children born in 1990, according to a World Health Organization study. Low-income countries made the biggest strides, with life expectancy rising by 9 years. Liberia led the pack, with life expectancy rising by 20 years to 62 while Ethiopians are expected to live 19 more years to 64.

“Fewer children are dying before their fifth birthday,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said in the report. While developing countries have made significant gains, the rich-poor divide remains, Chan said.

As developing countries tackle infectious diseases responsible for early death, they are grappling with an explosion of newer afflictions such as strokes that stem from unhealthy lifestyles once typical of a so-called Western diet. For wealthier nations, as falling birth rates and higher longevity boost the proportion of older people, the key question is who will support the elderly.

Income Gaps

A boy born in 2012 in a high-income country can expect to live to about 76, 16 years longer than a boy born in a low-income country, WHO said. For girls, a gap of 19 years separates life expectancy of 82 years in richer countries versus 63 years in poorer countries.

“In high-income countries, much of the gain in life expectancy is due to success in tackling noncommunicable diseases,” said Ties Boerma, director of the Department of Health Statistics and Information Systems at the WHO. “Richer countries have become better at monitoring and managing high blood pressure, for example.”

Declining tobacco use is also a key factor in helping people live longer, WHO said.

Iceland and Switzerland led life expectancies for men, with 81.2 and 80.7 years respectively, while Japanese and Spanish women live the longest at 87 and 85.1 years respectively.

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