Research & Insights

Life expectancy: how long can you live?

Australians are living longer than ever before. Why is that and what can you do to improve your own life expectancy?

Health Agenda magazine
January 2019

For people born in Australia in the mid-1930s, the average life expectancy was 63.5 years for men and 67.1 years for women, reports the Queensland Government and Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

High mother and baby mortality rates and the impact of infectious diseases like measles were contributing factors. 

Fast forward 80 years and a boy born between 2014 and 2016 has a life expectancy of 80.4 years and female life expectancy is 84.6 years, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. In fact, Australia now enjoys one of the highest life expectancies of any country, ranking 5th out of 35 developed.

What’s changed over the past 80 years to dramatically increase our life expectancy?

Why has life expectancy increased?

The majority of the rise in life expectancy has occurred since 1970.

In particular, the 1950s and 1960s saw high death rates. These were due to “smoking, excessive alcohol use and what’s generally called external causes, which are things like accidents, homicides and suicides,” says Professor Peter McDonald, chief investigator at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research.

“A lot of what I call lifestyle changes, particularly for men, have greatly increased life expectancy, because we’re not smoking quite so much and we’re much more careful when we’re driving. And, of course, we have much safer arrangements in the workplace.”

Dr Sam Davis, a senior lecturer in applied gerontology at Flinders University, adds that the list of reasons we’re living longer “covers medical advancements and things as simple as vaccinations through to a wide range of social and environmental changes – like better work and housing conditions – and improvements in public health,” she says.

Does life expectancy increase in your lifetime?

The good news is that your life expectancy increases as you age. Infant deaths skew the data towards a younger average life expectancy, but once you’ve lived into adulthood, your chances of living a longer life increase.

For example, a man born in 1948 would have a life expectancy of 66. By age 25 the man could expect to live until 70 and by age 61 he could expect to live until 83.

What’s important is we’re not just living longer as we age – we’re living well for longer. According to 2016 World Health Organization research, Australia’s healthy life expectancy – years of “full health” without disease or injury – is 73 years, which is about 10 years higher than the global average.

Unsurprisingly, as healthy life span grows, expectations about retirement shift. We’re not only living longer, we’re feeling young for longer, “which means people are more active”, says Mark McCrindle, founder of social research firm McCrindle.

“We see this in how the retirement lifestyle looks these days – people are travelling more, they’re active in the workplace longer and they have higher expectations of what those more than 20 years post-retirement look like,” says McCrindle.

“We haven’t eliminated the years of aged care and dependency, but certainly we’ve got more years [of healthy retirement] and we’re not just being sustained through medical interventions. It’s led to increased quality of life as well as length of life.”

All things being unequal

Despite the gains, there are still significant differences in life expectancy within Australia. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people born between 2010 and 2012 will live an estimated 10 years less than non-Indigenous people. The Closing the Gap Prime Minister’s Report 2018 found nearly 3 in 4 Indigenous deaths were from chronic diseases, including heart disease and cancer, which accounted for 79% of the gap in mortality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Prof McDonald says similar discrepancies can be seen in our cities.

“If you live on the north shore of Sydney, which is the richest part of Australia, your life expectancy is much higher than if you live in the south west of Sydney,” he says. “And the differences are very big – there’s maybe 7 or 8 years’ difference in life expectancy. It’s all about socio-economic differences. If you’re wealthier, you live longer.”

That’s because people with lower income and education are at greater risk of illness and disability. The ABS says several reasons for this have been suggested, including differences in smoking rates, nutrition, the standard of housing and access to medical care.

The gender divide

Gender differences in life expectancy are perhaps the most perplexing. Women generally experience higher rates of stress, chronic disease and depression, and are more likely to be victims of violence and earn less than men, yet they live longer in every country. Why?

No-one knows the exact reason. There are obviously some biological differences but many experts believe the differences are due to social and behavioural aspects of gender and learned gender roles.

Research shows women are more health conscious, communicate better about their problems and are more likely to overestimate risk. Men, on the other hand, are less likely to follow medical treatment or advice – often viewing health-promoting behaviours as feminine – and are more likely to engage in unhealthy and risky behaviours.

“It’s related to lifestyle differences – in particular, smoking and alcohol,” says Prof McDonald.

The next generation myth

It’s often said that today’s children will be the first generation who won’t live as long as their parents, due to the rise in inactive lifestyles and childhood obesity, but McCrindle says that’s not the case.

“I expect the trend we’re on to continue,” he says. “We’re not going to see massive increases in life expectancy because, for example, infant mortality rates are [already] very low and cancer survival rates are quite high. But we will continue to see incremental increases of the scale that we’ve seen over the last 15 years.

“So, we might add about 2 years of life expectancy every [15 to 20 years]. In the next 80 years, we would expect Australians to be living 5 or maybe 6 years longer than they currently do.”

How to extend your life span

What can you do to extend your life expectancy? If you’re a smoker, quit now. In 12 months, your risk of heart disease – the single leading cause of death in Australia – will halve. In 15 years, your
risk of heart attack and stroke
is almost the same as someone who has never smoked.

Chronic diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and mental health conditions, are on the rise. While there are some things you can’t change, like inherited health problems, there may be things you can do to reduce your risk:

Being proactive about the health factors within your control can give you a greater chance of leading a longer and more satisfying life.

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