Life expectancy – how it fluctuates in a generation

Life expectancy at birth is, for good reason, an oft-cited statistic used to measure and compare the quality-of-life differences between countries. First of all, the expectation of a longer life is considered to be a good thing, and increasing it is a more or less a declared policy aim of many countries.  Life expectancy is also broadly indicative of other positive or negative factors within an individual nation including – but not limited to – infant mortality, health care, quality of environment, violent crime rates and stability of employment.

OECD countries in general tend to have a higher average life expectancy than non-OECD countries. In the graph below, the OECD-average is above all the other selected countries.

OECD Factbook 2010 from Timetric

Furthermore, there is significant variation in average life expectancy among countries within the OECD. In the 2010 OECD Factbook, which contains data to 2007, Japan had the highest life expectancy among OECD member nations at 82.6 years, while Turkey and Hungary had the lowest life expectancies at 73.4 and 73.3 years respectively. Additionally, it’s worth noting that while Turkey’s life expectancy has increased steadily over the last decade – by about a total of 3 years – Hungary’s growth (in common with many in Eastern Europe) has been much more erratic.

OECD Factbook 2010 from Timetric

So how does the UK measure up in Western Europe? Middle of the road is the short answer. Italy and Spain are the longest-lived countries at an average of over 81 years in both cases. The average UK life expectancy is not far adrift from that in France and Germany – and all three have edged up pretty much in line.

OECD Factbook 2010 from Timetric

There have been more interesting trends in some of the other countries. Average life expectancy in Ireland has jumped significantly since the late 1990s – just under 4 years during the last decade – over-taking both the OECD average and the UK. The case of the Netherlands is also interesting – leading the pack 30-40 years ago but now middling. Denmark has also failed to keep up with improvements elsewhere.

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