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Life Expectancy
Read the text, and then complete the exercises at the end.
Did You Know?
  • Life expectancy worldwide has risen on average by 4 months each year since 1970.
  • Infant mortality rates fell from 80 per 1000 live births in 1980, to 54 per 1000 in 1998.
  • Women tend to outlive men by 5 to 8 years in the countries with the highest life expectancies, but by only 0 to 3 years in countries where life expectancy is low.

Life Expectancy


Life expectancy at birth is the average number of years a newborn infant would be expected to live if health and living conditions at the time of its birth remained the same throughout its life. It reflects the health of a country's people and the quality of care they receive when they are sick. Life expectancy is higher in high-income countries than in all but a few low- and middle-income countries.

Chart 1.

Between 1980 and 1998, the world's average life expectancy at birth rose from 61 to 67 years, with the most dramatic increases occurring in the low- and middle-income countries. (See Chart 1.) Increased access to nutritious food, primary health care--including safe water, sanitation, antibiotics and other medicines, and immunizations--and education explain much of the difference. It is important to note, however, that although the world's average life expectancy at birth was 67 years, individual countries can vary largely. For example, in Rwanda, life expectancy at birth in 1998 was 41 years, while in Japan it was 81 years.

Similarly, not all countries have experienced a rise in life expectancy at birth over the past two decades. Since 1980, seventeen countries--mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa and the former Soviet Union--have actually experienced a decline. In these nations, problems such as economic depression in the former Soviet Union (see Box 1) and AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa, have overcome the progress previously made in people's living conditions. In the Sub-Saharan country of Botswana, for example, where one out of every three adults is infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, life expectancy at birth decreased by fifteen years between 1987 and 1998 after it had been rising steadily for more than thirty years.

Surviving Childhood

Chart 2.

Although overall living conditions are improving and more and more infants in low- and middle-income countries are surviving, these babies are still much more likely to die within their first year than are those in high-income countries. (See Chart 2) Why? Drinking water is still often unsafe, and unsanitary conditions are still common. Pregnant women, nursing mothers, and infants may not get enough nutritious food. Family planning and other health and educational services --especially for girls--may be lacking or unaffordable. All of these factors work against the health and strength of women and their babies.

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