Every now and then, whilst i’m wandering around the internet, I come across something that I find genuinely fascinating and often quite thought provoking. On this occasion I set out to settle an argument with a friend that we are living longer. Enter ‘UK life expectancy’ into Google and you are guided to Google’s own wizard that enables you to compare life expectancy in nations across the planet. A hour later and I had discovered a number of interesting facts about life expectancy.
Firstly, as I knew already, we are getting older – Britains live on average about 9 years longer than they did 50 years ago – a rate that seems to be increasing by around 3 months every year. Of course more advanced medical science is the primary reason for this, keeping us alive (if not healthier) for longer. UK life expectancy compares favourably with other Western European nations, Scandinavian countries and Japan are slightly higher, the USA slightly lower. All of these nations have seen a steady, unremarkable climb over the last 50 years.
However there are a number of other nations with rather a different tale to tell. Take Iraq for instance, life expectancy has dropped significantly since the start of the Iraq war in 2001, with Iraqis now living on average 3 years less; all due to a complex mix of civilian casualties and the destruction of vital infrastructure. The human price of war is seen dramatically when looking at Rwanda. The civil war of the early 1990′s, culminating in the mass genocide of 800,000 people in 1994, reduced the life expectancy to just 26 years of age in 1993. Going back further in time to Cambodia, the genocide orchestrated by Pol Pot in the 1970s claimed an estimated 2.5 million lives and reduced life expectancy by a third. Amazingly such is the resilience in human life though, that when the populations of both nations recovered, the life expectancy continued broadly along the same line as if the genocide hadn’t happened.
Perhaps the data that I found most startling however, was the present situation in sub-saharan Africa. Both South Africa and Zimbabwe show the devasting effect that HIV is having on life expectancy, the latter further impacted by the worsening political situation. On the positive side it looks as though the efforts of both governments and NGO’s are starting to have an effect, with life expectancy levelling out, and in the case of Zimbabwe starting to rise.
The question this posed for me, is what might happen to UK life expectancy in the next 50 years. I blogged recently about the impending public health challenge in the UK. With so many of the population overweight or obese, and consuming far more alcohol than is healthy, the picture doesn’t look good. From my point of view the recent growth in life expectancy may soon start to be reversed.