Life Expectancy by Country
The Places Where People Live the Longest
If you look at the rankings, the average life expectancy by country can vary greatly. Why is that?
Some factors, like access to health care, are obvious. Other factors, however, may be less clear.
What do the countries with the highest life expectancies have in common? How are the countries with the lowest life expectancies similar?
Most importantly, what can we do to raise the life expectancy at home and in the world population overall?
What is Life Expectancy?
Life expectancy is a statistical measure of lifespan based on the year of birth and other demographic information such as place of birth and gender.
The term “life expectancy” can mean a number of different things. Most commonly, people use the term to refer to life expectancy at birth (LEB). LEB measures the expected lifespan for a group of people born in the same year.
Average life expectancy is a measure of how long the average person lives in a given country. This is usually calculated by just averaging out the ages at which people die to get the mean value.
This is different from "the age before which 50% of the population dies," which would be the median value. This is also different from "the most common age at which people die" which would be the mode value. The median and mode values for life expectancy are usually higher than the mean value.
The big difference between the mean value and the others is that it's heavily affected by people dying young. People dying before their twenties skew the numbers much more than people living to 110. That means that countries with low life expectancies aren't necessarily places where people don't live long; they might just, unfortunately, be places where more people die early.
What Does Life Expectancy Tell Us?
Average life expectancy tells us the average number of years that a population can be expected to live, given a defined set of circumstances.
Does Gender Affect Your Life Expectancy?
Generally speaking, females have an overall higher average life expectancy than males. This is believed to be due to various factors, some of which are physiological, and others are social.
Men and women are built differently, and some of these differences affect longevity.
One example is fat distribution, which is determined by estrogen levels and by the presence of a second X chromosome in females.
The combination of hormonal and chromosomal factors means that women tend to have more subcutaneous fat than men, while men have more fat surrounding the organs. Fat surrounding the organs is a predictor of cardiovascular disease.
In addition, although everyone’s immune system weakens with age, studies are finding that this effect is greater in men, and happens earlier.
Finally, for various reasons, male children around the world are less likely than female children to reach the age of five.
Although cultures and gender roles can vary greatly around the world, there are still some widespread trends that affect the relative mortality rates for men and women.
First, males around the world are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, including smoking.
There is also a higher number of males in dangerous professions, including combat roles. And globally, the male suicide rate is twice that of women.
Interestingly, although female life expectancy is higher worldwide, the size of the gap can vary greatly. In Russia, for example, women live an average of ten years longer than men. In Bhutan, however, the average is less than one year.
What is Today's Human Life Expectancy?
According to the World Health Organization, today’s global per capita average life expectancy is 73.3 years.
What Causes High Life Expectancy?
That’s the billion-dollar question, isn’t it? There’s no magic formula, however, countries with higher life expectancies have certain things in common. These include:
Access to Appropriate Health Care
It goes without saying that access to reliable, high-quality health care, including vaccines, helps people to live longer, individually and as a whole.
Appropriate health care is more than per capita spending. Universal access is paramount. In fact, it’s been shown that a universal healthcare system leads to a higher national life expectancy.
In addition, it’s been shown that social spending on incapacity, that is, caring for people who become unable to fully care for themselves, can also improve a country’s average life expectancy.
Healthy Food and Clean Water
One in four people worldwide lacks access to safe drinking water. And in some countries, unsafe drinking water accounts for six percent of deaths. 1.2 million people a year die from unsafe water.
Nearly nine percent of the world’s population is undernourished, which can lead to lifelong health problems.
On the other end of the spectrum, obesity, which is rampant in parts of the developed world, can lower individual life expectancy by as much as twenty years. In countries like the United Kingdom and the United States, which have obesity rates of 22 and 42 percent, respectively, obesity demonstrably affects the overall life expectancy.
A high level of overall education is associated with a higher life expectancy. And greater social spending on education has been shown to positively correlate with a higher national life expectancy.
Strong Community Cohesion
The study of “blue zones,” which we’ll discuss in detail in a bit, highlights the importance of strong, cohesive social networks for longevity. People who have a strong social network tend to live longer, and societies with strong social cohesion often have higher average life expectancies.
High GDP (Gross Domestic Product)
People living in richer countries often have more access to health care, sanitation, education, food, and water than people living in impoverished areas.
There are five populations that have an exceptionally high life expectancy, as well as a larger proportion of nonagenarians (people in their 90s) and centenarians (people over 100 years of age). Scientists have designated these communities “Blue Zones.” The five blue zones are:
- Okinawa, Japan
- Icaria, Greece
- Oligastra, Sardinia, Italy
- Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
- Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California, USA
These communities share a number of commonalities:
Two dietary practices shown to lead to a longer life are common in blue zones: a 95 percent plant-based diet rich in whole foods, and an 80/100 eating pattern (where people typically eat until they feel 80 percent full, rather than 100 percent full). Some areas also practice fasting.
On average, people in blue zones eat meat a maximum of five times per month. Their diet is also rich in vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and nuts.
2. Everyday Exercise
In the blue zones, most people don’t hit the gym, but they do exercise a lot. This exercise is baked into their lifestyle.
People may walk long distances to work, for example. They may live in hilly areas and climb steep inclines on a daily basis. Many people garden and do daily chores. They often take the stairs. It adds up.
3. Strong Social Network
Blue zone communities typically have strong, multigenerational communities. They are often religious. And many people in blue zones report having a sense of purpose in life.
4. Moderate Alcohol Intake
In several blue zone communities, moderate red wine consumption is common. Red wine is high in antioxidants, and one study shows that light consumption of wine results in a lower mortality rate than drinking heavily, or drinking beer or liquor.
5. Getting Enough Sleep
People in blue zones tend to get seven or more hours of sleep per night and take naps.
What Causes Low Life Expectancy?
Certain indicators of lower average life expectancy include:
- Lack of access to adequate health care services
- Lack of access to healthy food and clean water
- Economic deprivation
- Lower average level of education
- Low social cohesion
- Political instability
It’s easy to see how these factors feed into one another. Economic deprivation and political instability can make it difficult to build and maintain the health care systems and infrastructure for water and sanitation that are necessary for a healthy, long-lived population, for example.
Where Do People Live Longest?
As can be expected, high-income developed countries, including many in Europe, have a higher life expectancy overall than less developed countries and places with longstanding conflict.
Many European countries like Belgium, Norway, Finland, Germany, and Austria also rank highly for life expectancy in part due to the availability of a high-quality public health care system. Canada and New Zealand rank highly for the same reason.
Where is Life Expectancy Increasing?
In the pre-modern world, life expectancy was more or less uniform the world over. Most people died around 29 to 30 years of age. However, industrialization caused a rise in wealth and the standard of living in industrialized countries that did not occur in other countries. The gap between developed countries and developing countries continues today.
But there’s some good news.
With few exceptions, life expectancy is increasing around the world. In fact, since the turn of the 20th century, the global average life expectancy worldwide has more than doubled, from around 29 to around 73.
Oceania, the area encompassing Australasia, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia, is currently experiencing the largest increase in average life expectancy. Currently, no country has an average life expectancy of less than the pre-modern global average of 30.
Where is Life Expectancy Decreasing?
The answer may be surprising.
One place where life expectancy is decreasing is the United States.
In the United States, the average lifespan has been decreasing due to a combination of factors. Deaths from opioid overdoses have reached the level of affecting the life expectancy of the nation as a whole. Increasing rates of homicide and suicide are also taking their toll.
The prevalence of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and Alzheimer’s disease is also shortening the national lifespan. However, one of the most significant causes is the country’s fractured and unequal healthcare system.
This decline is not mirrored in other OECD nations, at which the United States sits near the bottom in ranking for life expectancy.
How Can Countries Increase their Average Life Expectancy?
Comparing countries with higher life expectancies with those that have lower life expectancies reveals a few clues.
One of the keys to a higher national life expectancy appears to be universal access to high-quality health care. Another is a strong infrastructure that provides education, incapacity support, and sanitation.
In addition, fostering a society with strong, multigenerational social connections can also help to promote longevity.
Life Expectancy is Only the Beginning
The Top 15 Highest Countries
The Top 15 Lowest Countries
|175||Democratic Republic of Congo||61.60||63.21||60.01|
|188||Central African Republic||54.36||56.58||52.16|
Small Nations and Territories
|Isle of Man||80.5||82.5||78.6|
|U.S. Virgin Islands||74.7||80.6||69.5|
|Northern Mariana Islands||77.2||79.2||75.6|
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