Why People Are Living Longer In Low-Income Countries


Average life expectancies around the globe have increased by six years since 1990, according to a new report by the World Health Organization (WHO). But even more surprising is another finding of the report: life expectancy is growing more than twice as fast for low-income countries compared to high-income nations like the United States.

A boy born in 2012 can expect to live to an average of 68 years, a girl to 73.

High-income countries’ life expectancies increased since 1990 by an average of 5.1 years, versus a gain in low-income countries of 9 years. That means in low-income countries, life expectancy is increasing an average of 3 days a week, or 10 hours per day, according to the report.

The WHO attributes high gains in life expectancy in low-income countries to a decline in child mortality rates. “An important reason why global life expectancy has improved so much is that fewer children are dying before their fifth birthday,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan in a statement.

The infant mortality rate, which is six times higher in Africa than Europe, has dropped in the last several years. According to a joint study by WHO, the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF), and the World Bank, deaths of children under five years old decreased from 12 million in 1990 to 6.6 million in 2012.

“This trend is a positive one. Millions of lives have been saved,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake when the joint study was released last September. “And we can do still better. Most of these deaths can be prevented, using simple steps that many countries have already put in place.”

Increasing availability of mosquito nets and vaccinations against preventable diseases have been essential in lowering the infant mortality rate in African nations, according to WHO.

Of the 24 countries where the average person now lives more than 10 extra years, half were in Africa (with the highest gain in Liberia, 19.7 years, followed by Ethiopia, Maldives, Cambodia, Timor-Leste, and Rwanda). The remaining half were in South East Asia or the Middle East.

But the recently released study also showed that large gains in life expectancy by low-income countries hasn’t closed the gap between high-income and low-income countries. Men living in low-income countries live on average 15.6 years less than in high-income countries. Women live 18.9 years less.

Several African countries still have a life expectancy lower than 55 years, including Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria. And countries with the top life expectancies are high-income–men live the longest in Iceland (81.2 years), followed by Switzerland and Australia. Japanese women live longest, followed by women in Spain, Switzerland, and Singapore. The United States ranked 26th for life expectancy in 2013.

Chan said in high-income countries, the gain in life expectancy was due to a decline in tobacco use as well as success in “tackling noncommunicable diseases” like heart disease, according to Dr. Ties Boerma, director of the Department of Health Statistics and Information Systems at WHO. Boerma said richer countries are improving their monitoring and managing of high blood pressure.

The study also showed that in both low-income and high-income countries, women live longer (six years longer in high-income countries, three years longer in low-income). The top causes of deaths are coronary heart disease, lower respiratory infections like pneumonia, and strokes.

Abigail Bessler is an intern at ThinkProgress.