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Life expectancy statistics with interactive charts

Otto Kolbl (follow on facebook, twitter), created: 2016-01-07, last modified: 2016-02-26

Life expectancy at birth is an important indicator of social development, especially because for some countries, reliable data is available since the second half of the 19th century. The aim of this article is to provide comprehensive and reliable data in the form of two interactive charts, the first on a timeline, the second in relation to GDP. This website does not pretend to be an authoritative data source; the purpose of the charts is to facilitate data exploration, to provide links to reliable data sources, to illustrate a few research results and to offer a convenient tool to generate charts.

"Life expectancy at birth" in a certain year is the average duration of life (from birth to death) which people will reach who are born in this year and who will live all their life in the conditions prevalent in this same year. It is quite obvious that this is an abstract concept, but it is a good indicator of living conditions and social development. The chart below shows the development of life expectancy for a couple of countries from 1900 to 2013. All the charts are interactive; by clicking the buttons or the data points, you can add other countries, change the period and get detailed information about the data sources.

Life expectancy across the world
Life expectancy across the world.

If we want to understand the differences between countries in terms of life expectancy, we must first look at economic development. The chart below shows for each country (represented by a dot) only the values for 2013, displayed according to two indicators. The x-axis represents GDP per capita on a logarithmic scale (actually the logarithm of GDP plus a constant). The y-axis represents life expectancy at birth with a similar scale. Countries which massively export oil or other mining products are shown as empty circles. In this article, "GDP" always refers to GDP per capita purchasing power parity, generally in 2010 international dollars. If your mouse hovers above one of the dots, you will get more information about the country it represents.

Life expectancy in relation to GDP
Life expectancy in relation to GDP.

At the first glance, you can see that economic development matters: not even one among the low-income countries can provide its people with a life expectancy similar to what you can expect in high-income countries. If we exclude countries which massively export oil or other mining products, all high-income countries (GDP > 27000) provide a life expectancy above 78 years to their citizens. Statistical methods show that economic development as measured by GDP explains more than 80% of all the differences among the countries shown in this chart. The technical details will be dealt with in another article. To make it short: in the long term, GDP growth is the only means of massively saving human lives, and it will necessarily lead to people living longer.

At least, this is true for countries which do not massively export oil or mining products. Here is the same chart, with countries earning more than 15% of GDP through the exportation of oil or mining products represented as circles:

Life expectancy in relation to GDP, including oil-rich countries
Life expectancy in relation to GDP, including oil-rich countries.

It is quite striking that there is not one single oil exporting country which has got an above-average life expectancy. Those which are closest to the average line are also those which are in conflict with the USA: Iran, Libya and Venezuela. Conversely, the oil-exporting states which are close allies of the USA are total failures from the point of view of social development (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Trinidad and Tobago, Equatorial Guinea, Botswana, etc.). The possible explanations for this will be dealt with in detail in another article.

Since the 1980s, HIV/AIDS has also had a huge impact on life expectancy. You can see this in the first chart for South Africa, but the same is true for many other African countries. There will also be an article about this topic soon.

In general, life expectancy and especially the impact of development on life expectancy are topics which are quite neglected by our mainstream media, like most other indicators of social development. All governments should be evaluated with regards to the change in life expectancy they have brought about, no matter whether it is positive or negative. Human lives should be considered the most precious good on earth. It is quite appalling to see how our media praise governments and policies which have been a disaster from the point of view of life expectancy, and constantly criticize governments which have achieved truly impressive results in this field. It is time to hold not only our governments, but also our media accountable.

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