Life expectancy has gone up by six years on average throughout the world since 1990, according to a survey led by scientists at the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. The extensive survey analyzed records from 188 countries. Japan tops the list with an average life expectancy of 83 years. While there’s reason to rejoice in the news, it’s worth mentioning that living with disabilities and illness has also been prolonged. The same advances that helped us live longer have also prolonged our suffering and this is where scientists are trying to invest their energy: focus less on extending life expectancy and more on the quality of our last years on this planet.

old age

Photo: Mete Baskocak

Six years is quite a lot. This can be attributed to widespread success in the fight against HIV/AIDS and malaria, especially in developing countries.

Between the 23 years the researchers analyzed for life expectancy patterns, little variation was encountered with a few notable exceptions. In general, people all around the world are living longer.

  • In 2013, the life expectancy in the world averaged across both sexes was 71.5 years. Broken down by gender: men live to 68.8, while women live to 74.4 years of age.
  • Healthy life expectancy at birth- living without serious disability or illness, that is –  rose by 5.4 years — from 56.9 in 1990 to 62.3 in 2013.
  • For most of the 188 countries included in the study, the life expectancy boom was “healthy and positive”. Exceptions include Belize, Botswana and Syria, countries destabilized by conflict, civil unrest and corruption, which saw no significant improvement.
  • In countries like South Africa, Paraguay, and Belarus life expectancy actually dropped. The worse off were Lesotho and Swaziland where people born in 2013 can expect to live 20 years less than projected in 2003.
  • On the opposite end of the spectrum, some countries achieved a massive boost in life expectancy. Nicaraguans and Cambodian live longer by 14.7 and 13.9 years respectively than they had in 1990.
  • Lesotho had the world’s lowest healthy life expectancy, at 42 years. Japan had the highest, at 73.4 years.

“The world has made great progress in health, but now the challenge is to invest in finding more effective ways of preventing or treating the major causes of illness and disability,” said Theo Vos, a professor at the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington who led the analysis.

I think we all can agree with Vos on this one, but in the end can deprecation at the hand of age old be addressed? It depends on where you stand: whether you believe aging is a natural, fundamental process of nature (which it is, but necessarily for humans) or if you think of aging more like a medical condition, one that can be treated like any other disease.  Aubrey de Grey seems to think so.  “Just as a vintage car can be kept in good condition indefinitely with periodic preventative maintenance, so there is no reason why, in principle, the same can’t be true of the human body”, thinks de Grey – the same man who said the first man to live to be 1,000 years old is already alive today. Bold statement. “There is an increasing number of people realising that the concept of anti-ageing medicine that actually works is going to be the biggest industry that ever existed by some huge margin and that it just might be foreseeable.”

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