Life expectancy: why we’re living longer than ever
Australians have one of the best life expectancies in the world. Why and what can you do to improve your own life expectancy?
When HCF first began in 1932, people born in Australia could expect an average life expectancy of 63.5 years for men and 67.1 years for women.
Our improved healthcare system and vaccination rates, advanced medical treatments and lower mother and baby mortality rates have meant that the average person can expect to enjoy around two more decades.
The United Nations World Population Prospects suggests current life expectancy in Australia in 2022 to be 83.79. In fact, Australia enjoys one of the highest life expectancies in the world, ranking 8th out of 60 developed countries. That’s higher than the UK (81.65) and the US (79.05).
So what’s changed over the past 90 years to dramatically increase our life expectancy?
Why are there changes in life expectancy?
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 OA, 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,” says Prof McDonald. “And, of course, we have much safer arrangements in the workplace.”
Social gerontologist Dr Sam Davis studies ageing and older adults. She 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 – such as better work and housing conditions – and improvements in public health”.
How does life expectancy change over a lifetime?
Basically, the older you get, the older you can expect to live. 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. The World Health Organization documents the healthy life expectancy for countries around the world and its latest figures show the average 60-year-old Australian can expect another 19 years of full health, without disease or injury.
Unsurprisingly, as healthy life span grows, expectations about retirement shift. We’re not only living longer, but we’re also 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 Mark.
“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.”
Life expectancy and social status
Despite the gains for many, there are still significant differences in life expectancy within Australia.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children born between 2015 and 2017 can expect to live to the age of 71.6 years (male) and 75.6 years (female). Since 2006, there has been a small but fluctuating decline in the life expectancy difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
While there have been improvements in the mortality rate from circulatory disease (heart disease, stroke and hypertension), this has coincided with a worsening of Indigenous cancer mortality rates. The target to close the life expectancy gap by 2030, set by the federal government back in 2008, is not on track to be met.
Prof McDonald says socio-economic status plays a huge role in health – affecting the three important areas of healthcare, environmental exposure and health behaviour.
“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 southwest of Sydney,” he says. “And the differences are very big – there’s maybe seven or eight years difference in life expectancy. It’s all about socio-economic differences. If you’re wealthier, you live longer.”
Studies suggest people with lower income and level of education are at greater risk of illness and disability, with reasons including differences in smoking rates, nutrition, alcohol intake, activity levels, uncontrolled high blood pressure, standards of housing and access to medical care.
Life expectancy and the gender divide
Female life expectancy is higher than male life expectancy. In Australia, a male born between 2018–2020 can expect to live to 81, while a female would be expected to reach around 85 years.
Gender differences in life expectancy are perhaps the most perplexing. Women generally experience higher rates of depression and chronic disease, 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 biological differences but many experts believe the differences are due to social and behavioural aspects of gender and learned gender roles.
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 and are more likely to engage in unhealthy and risky behaviours.
The future of life expectancy
It’s often said 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 Mark 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 two years of life expectancy every [15 to 20 years]. In the next 80 years, we would expect Australians to be living five or maybe six 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, like 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:
- don’t drink more than the recommended amount of alcohol (no more than two standard drinks a day)
- be physically active for at least 30 minutes a day
- eat a healthy diet
- maintain healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels
- lose weight if you’re overweight
- enjoy close relationships with friends and family and you’ll be more likely to live longer than people who are isolated and lonely.
Being proactive about the health factors within your control can give you a greater chance of leading a longer and more satisfying life.
Words by Sara Mulcahy
Updated August 2022
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