Study in Lancet Says Rise Is Result of Dramatic Health-Care Advances

Global life expectancy for men and women has increased by about six years over the past two decades, according to one of the most comprehensive studies of global health done so far.

The rise in global life expectancy is mainly the result of dramatic advances in health care. In richer countries longer lifespans are spurred by a big drop in deaths related to heart disease, while poorer countries have seen big declines in the death of children from ailments such as pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria.

Jeralean Talley, at 115, is the oldest living American.ENLARGE
Jeralean Talley, at 115, is the oldest living American. ASSOCIATED PRESS

But there are worrying signs, too. While global deaths from infectious disease dropped by about 25% over the past two decades, the number of deaths linked to noncommunicable diseases has jumped by about 40%. Noncommunicable maladies, such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes, tend to be chronic in nature and often more expensive to treat.

“That’s a very profound shift and it will affect how countries deal with” the future health of their populations, said Christopher Murray, lead author of the study and director of the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, or IHME, at the University of Washington, which oversaw the analysis.

The study was published Wednesday in the journal Lancet. It is part of an exhaustive analysis known as the Global Burden of Disease Study done by an international team of more than 700 researchers led by the institute. It was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The study analyzes yearly deaths from 240 different causes in 188 countries from 1990 to 2013. The last such report was published in 2010. Governments use the data to make policy decisions; scientists use the data to decide what areas of medical research to pursue; and donors use the data to decide which areas of global health they should support.

Life expectancy is rising globally thanks to disease prevention and medical advancements. In which countries are lives being cut short? WSJ’s Jason Bellini has #TheShortAnswer.

The Lancet study “is based on an unprecedented amount of information that has been crunched using very sophisticated tools,” said Igor Rudan, global health expert at the University of Edinburgh, who wasn’t involved in the Lancet study. “In an information-based world, whoever controls the information controls the agenda.”

The World Health Organization compiles similar data. Its last update of health statistics was published earlier this year and spanned the 2000-12 period.


Although it lacked the breadth and depth of the IHME analysis, the WHO’s number-crunching also concluded that the average global life expectancy had risen by six years since 1990.

“The big picture is generally similar, with the exception of historical trends in Africa where they’re more pessimistic than we are,” said Colin Mathers, who oversees global health statistics at the WHO and is familiar with IHME’s analysis.

The WHO data, for example, has lower figures for African deaths linked to malaria and HIV/AIDS.

The latest IHME study estimates that global life expectancy increased by 5.8 years for men and 6.6 years for women. If the pattern of the past two decade continues, a girl born in 2030 will live to be 85.3 years old on average, while a boy born then will live to be 78.1 years on average.

In many places, better disease-prevention and treatment efforts have made a big dent in mortality rates. For example, deaths from measles and diarrhea fell by 83% and 51%, respectively.

In India, which is on track to become the world’s most populous country in less than two decades, life expectancy at birth rose from 57.3 years to 64.2 years for males, and from 58.2 years to 68.5 years for females, according to the Lancet study.

The exception is southern sub-Saharan Africa, where HIV/AIDS has shortened lifespans by an average of five years since 1990.

Despite big strides in prevention and treatment efforts, HIV/AIDS remains the biggest cause of premature death in more than a dozen sub-Saharan countries.

Write to Gautam Naik at gautam.naik@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications

Part of the graphic about rising life expectancy showed the average age at death for people in various nations and regions. That portion of the graphic was incorrectly labeled in an earlier version, except in the case of the global figures, as showing average years of life expectancy. (Dec. 19, 2014)