The Evolution of Life Expectancy in the World

Apart from southern Africa, life expectancy is increasing for the whole population in the world. However, the disparities between rich and poor populations remain significant.

Life expectancy at birth has grown considerably in the world in the last half a century. While women and men who were born at the beginning of the 1950s could expect living in average at least 46.6 years, those born between 2005 and 2010 may reach in average an age of 67.6 years. Within 50 years, average life expectancy has increased by more than twenty years! Furthermore, populations of developing countries have very clearly seen their life expectancy grow, from 41 years in the 1950s to 65.6 years today.

But twenty years that is also today’s gap between the life expectancy of populations in developed regions – estimated at 77.1 years – and of those in the poorest regions (55.9 years). This gap is smaller today than 50 years ago. At the beginning of the 1950s the gap between developed and poor countries was 30 years. Nevertheless, life expectancy in the poorest countries corresponds to the one of rich countries…before the 1950s.

When focusing on geographical areas, the current gap appears even wider. The lowest life expectancies can be found in Sub-Saharan Africa (51.5 years) and southern Africa (51.6 years). On the opposite, the populations of Western Europe and North America have the highest life expectancies (80.3 and 79.3 years respectively). Thus there are 30 years of difference between the two extremes.

Sub-Saharan Africa and southern Africa are today on the same level, but the evolution of their life expectancy differs a lot. In Sub-Saharan Africa, life expectancy has clearly increased: it went from 37.8 years in the 1950s to 51.5 years in 2010. This progress has however slowed down significantly from the 1980s on: estimated at that time at 48.3 years, it has gained only 3 years since. The emergence of AIDS explains this small change. But the situation is even worse in southern Africa. At the beginning of the 1950s, its population had a life expectancy of 44.7 years, corresponding to the world average (46.6 years). Half a century later, life expectancy has only increased by 4 years… and it shows a gap of 16 years towards the current world average (51.6 against 67.6 years). Since the beginning of the 1990s, life expectancy has even decreased by 10 years. In some countries, the impact of the AIDS virus has been limited by political power, especially in South Africa and Botswana, and no educational and awareness raising campaigns have been developed. Nevertheless, the figures concerning life expectancy clearly point to the dramatic consequences of this disease.

- This article has been published in French on the website of Observatoire des inégalités, April 26th 2011. Translated by Rita Stadtfeld.

Photo : © papinou -


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14 May 2012

Themes : • Conditions de vie


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