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Why life expectancy in Canada, other countries is reaching ‘breathtaking’ levels

  • February 22, 2017

Canadians born in 2030 will live longer by a few years — to age 84 for a man and 87 for a woman — than the preceding generation, according to a U.K. study that projects life expectancies in 35 industrialized countries will continue to climb.

The study was led by Prof. Majid Ezzati of Imperial College London. Unlike previous studies that relied on one model, Ezzati and his team used 21 models to predict life expectancy — the same statistical technique weather forecasters use to assemble their projections in a systematic way.

In Canada, the life expectancy at birth for females in 2010 has been pegged at 83.94, compared with an expected 87.09 for those born in 2030. The corresponding figures for males are 79.41 and 83.89. The projections are in line with those from Statistics Canada.

Among the 35 countries, Canada stands at about the middle of the pack. 

‘I think it is kind of good news, bad news. Canada was higher and now we’ve been slipping a bit.’

- Dr. Doug Manuel, Ottawa Hospital Research Institute 

In the latest study, women in South Korea are projected to top life expectancy of people in the countries studied, with women born in 2030 forecast to live to nearly 91, Ezzati and his colleagues report in this week’s issue of the medical journal The Lancet. Men in South Korea also lead in projected life expectancy, at about 84.

The increases in life expectancy in most developed countries is “breathtaking,” said Dr. Doug Manuel, a physician at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute who was not involved in the research but was asked to comment. He works on  life expectancy calculators for the public to see how their lifestyles could affect their health.

“I think it is kind of good news, bad news. Canada was higher and now we’ve been slipping a bit,” Manuel said.

He added that the good news for Canadians is they’re likely to be able to enjoy those extra years with good-quality health.

“There’s definitely warning signs as well when I see us just dropping through the ranks of OECD countries pretty quickly,” Manuel said.

For instance, Manuel said, Australia stands out with life expectancy that is now leading Canada’s. He suspects part of the difference could be how women in Canada in the 1960s took up smoking at much higher rates than Australia and the U.S.

Social inequality is another important piece to consider. Australia addressed it high minimum wages. Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador are considering basic income supports.

South Korean women tops

Since 1985, the first year South Korea provided data, there have been “massive gains” in the life expectancy of women in that country.

Projected life expectancy at birth in Canada in 2010 and 2030

“They’ve been remarkable in investing in early childhood, nutrition, and education,” Ezzati told BBC News. “They have done very well in terms of controlling obesity and blood pressure. They seem to have been good at taking up new knowledge … and implementing it. And perhaps, sort of most importantly, they’re doing this compared to a lot of Western countries in an equitable way.”

In South Korea, there’s also been a broad uptake of medical knowledge, know-how and technology — from specific guidelines and practices, to medicines and diagnostics — that seem to have reached much of the population, Ezzati added in an email to CBC News.

South Korea Nuclear Security Summit

A woman pushes a stroller as she passes South Korean Army soldiers standing guard during an anti-terror exercise in 2012. Since the mid-1980s, there have been ‘massive gains’ in the life expectancy of women in the country. (Lee Jin-man/Associated Press)

Improvements in health expectancy relate to improvements in prevention, Manuel said, in calling for inequalities to be reduced for low-income and Indigenous Canadians.

“If you think of inequalities as a kind of a disease, it’s our major killer.”   

Reducing inequalities could make a bigger difference than eliminating heart disease, he said.

“I think the difference between life expectancy in Indigenious and non-Indigenous is one of our most notable, persistent and discouraging differences that we’ve seen in mortality in Canada.”

People in countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand benefit from high-quality health care to prevent and treat cancer and heart disease. They also have low rates of infant deaths and road traffic injuries. 

For women, the study’s authors expect these countries will top life expectancy in 2030:

  • South Korea (90.8 years old).
  • France (88.6 years old).
  • Japan (88.4 years old).

For men:

  • South Korea (84.1 years old).
  • Australia (84.0 years old).
  • Switzerland (84.0 years old) for men.

Effects of U.S. inequality

The researchers predict the U.S. will experience relatively small improvements in life expectancy (from 81.2 for in 2010 to 83.3 in 2030 for women and 76.5 to 79.5 for men).

A century ago, the U.S. had some of the tallest people in the world, a marker of good nutrition early in life. 

But life expectancy in the U.S. is already lower than most other high-income countries and is expected to fall further behind in 2030, said study co-author James Bennett. Reasons for the standing include lack of universal health care, relatively high child and maternal mortality rates, and high homicide and obesity rates.

“This is the story of disinvestment in the social and in the health-care system that the effects of it are showing up in this simple and very powerful measure of their well-being, which is life expectancy,” Ezzati said in a journal podcast about the U.S. situation.

Ezzati said that policymakers should take into account that people are living longer in develop work and retirement plans, for instance, delaying further education and getting into the workforce, and phasing in retirement.

In general, his research team’s projections of life expectancy are similar to those made by the United Nations’ population department.

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