Life expectancy at birth remains one of the most
frequently used health status indicators. Gains in life expectancy at birth in OECD
countries in recent decades can be attributed to a number of factors, including rising
living standards, improved lifestyle and better education, as well as greater access
to quality health services. Other factors, such as better nutrition, sanitation and
housing also played a role, particularly in countries with emerging economies.
Life expectancy at birth measures how long on
average a newborn can expect to live, if current death rates do not change. However,
the actual age-specific death rate of any particular birth cohort cannot be known in
advance. If rates are falling (as has been the case over the past decades in OECD
countries), actual life spans will be higher than life expectancy calculated using
current death rates.
The methodology used to calculate life expectancy
can vary slightly between countries. These differences can affect the comparability of
reported life expectancy estimates, as different methods can change a country's
estimates by a fraction of a year. Life expectancy at birth for the total population
is calculated by the OECD Secretariat for all countries, using the unweighted average
of life expectancy of men and women.
On average across OECD countries, life
expectancy at birth for the whole population reached 79.5 years in 2009, a gain of
more than 11 years since 1960. Japan leads a large group (including almost
two-thirds of OECD countries) in which the total life expectancy at birth is
currently 80 years or more. A second group, including Portugal, the United States
and a number of central and eastern European countries have a life expectancy of
between 75 and 80 years. Life expectancy among OECD countries was lowest in
Turkey, followed by Hungary. However, while life expectancy in Hungary has
increased only modestly since 1960, it has increased sharply in Turkey, and is
rapidly catching up with the OECD average.
Nearly all OECD and emerging countries have
experienced large gains in life expectancy over the past 50 years. Life expectancy
at birth in Korea, Turkey and Chile has increased by twenty years or more over the
period 1960-2009. Mexico, Portugal and Japan, as well as emerging countries such
as Indonesia, China, India and Brazil also show strong gains. Other countries such
as the Russian Federation and South Africa are still characterised by high
mortality rates and by a length of life well below the OECD average.
The gender gap in life expectancy stood at 5.5
years on average across OECD countries in 2009, with life expectancy reaching 76.7
years among men and 82.2 years among women. While the gender gap in life
expectancy increased substantially in many countries during the 1960s and the
1970s, it narrowed during the past 30 years, reflecting higher gains in life
expectancy among men than among women in most OECD countries. This can be
attributed at least partly to the narrowing of differences in risk-increasing
behaviours between men and women, such as smoking, accompanied by sharp reductions
in mortality rates from cardiovascular diseases among men.
Higher national income (as measured by GDP per
capita) is generally associated with higher life expectancy at birth, although the
relationship is less pronounced at higher levels of national income.