If you’re going to live longer in this world, you want to live longer healthily. Being sick in old age takes away a lot from one’s retirement.
The latest figures on life expectancy, therefore, aren’t necessarily good news: Yes, we’re living longer, but often we’re living longer with diseases and disabilities as part of the bargain.
According to research led by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, global life expectancy rose by 6.2 years between 1990 and 2013, to an average of 71.5 years. At the same time, “healthy life expectancy”–measured in lost years of healthy life (DALYs)–rose only 5.4 years (to 62.3 years in 2013). In other words, increases in healthy life haven’t yet caught those of life expectancy, and therefore, people are living more years with illness and ailments.
This is particularly true for the U.S. Men gained 4.4 years of life from 1990 to 2013, while women gained 2.6 years. But healthy life expectancy increased only by 3.1 years for men and 1.6 years for women. Women continue to live significantly longer, though: 81.4 years against 76.3 years.
Conducted by an international consortium of researchers, the analysis covers 188 countries and 306 diseases. In the U.S., the most common causes for lost health expectancy were heart disease, low back and neck pain, COPD, lung cancer and depressive disorders. Globally, there’s a been a big decrease in health days lost due to communicable, maternal, neonatal, and nutritional disorders (from 1.2 billion in 1990 to 769 million in 2013). But there’s a been an increase (1.1 billion to 1.4 billion) in health days lost due to non-communicable diseases, like heart disease.
Social factors, like per capita income and years of schooling, play a role in determining how many healthy days are lost, but not always. For things like maternal and neonatal disorders, social status accounts for half the differences across all countries, the analysis says. But for cardiovascular disease and diabetes, it isn’t a determining factor across the board (there are some countries, for example, where both rich and poor people get diabetes). As countries differ in what’s driving their health outcomes, the researchers recommend “country-specific assessments of DALYs and [health life expectancy] to appropriately inform health policy decisions.”