South Korea is expected to become the first country to achieve the milestone, and several others might follow shortly.
It’s not easy to account for everything that can impact life expectancy — wars, natural disasters, and many other things can have a massive effect — but in ‘normal’ conditions, global life expectancy has gone up drastically in the past 200 years. Now, a new study published in the Lancet analyzed how life expectancy evolved in 35 countries, including the US, UK, Serbia, Germany, Sweden, Japan, South Korea, and Chile, and projected it onto the future.
Most of these countries experienced a significant increase, with the remarkable exception of the United States. There, a combination of obesity, child mortality, homicides, and lack of equal access to healthcare cause significant problems. In fact, the US is the only country in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development without universal healthcare coverage.
“Not only does the US have high and rising health inequalities, but also life expectancy has stagnated or even declined in some population subgroups,” write the authors.
Still, authors note that life expectancy will rise in the US, just more slowly than in other countries.
Korea over 90
South Korea is the most spectacular example. Ranked 29th for women longevity in 1985, the country took strides thanks to a healthy nutrition, universal healthcare, and a drop in smoking. A dramatic overall economic rise was also key to the improvement.
Researchers developed several statistical models and under all of them, South Korea’s life expectancy is impressive. According to all these models, there is a 97% probability that women’s life expectancy at birth in 2030 in South Korea will be higher than 86.7 years and 57% probability that it will exceed 90 years.
Not all good
This is, of course, good news — but it also comes with a couple of warnings. The first is that the healthspan is not doing as good as the lifespan. In other words, people are living longer but they’re not really doing so in good health. The quality of life is also rising, but not nearly as fast as the total lifespan.
Secondly, this will be a huge test on our society. Life expectancy wasn’t expected to grow so much, and both our social and economic systems will be greatly challenged in future decades.
“As recently as the turn of the century, many researchers believed that life expectancy would never surpass 90 years,” said the lead author Prof Majid Ezzati, of Imperial College London. “Our predictions of increasing lifespans highlight our public health and healthcare successes.
“However, it is important that policies to support the growing older population are in place. In particular, we will need to both strengthen our health and social care systems and to establish alternative models of care, such as technology assisted home care.”
Journal Reference: Vasilis Kontis et al — Future life expectancy in 35 industrialised countries: projections with a Bayesian model ensemble. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(16)32381-9