Brain and Body

We’re Living Longer Lives, But Not Healthier Ones

October 29, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Old men sitting on a bench
Photo credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simões/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

While the global life expectancy has gone up over the past decade, humans are increasingly experiencing a number of other dispiriting health issues.

A massive international study of health, longevity, and diseases in 188 countries around the world has determined that the current global life expectancy is six years longer than it was in 1990. However, the study has also shown that this increased lifespan comes with problems of its own. Those who are living longer are also living with the hardships caused by increasing rates of disability and illness.

According to the data that was just released by the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013, global life expectancy for both men and women has risen to 71.5 years of age. In 1990, the expectancy was only 65.3 years. The past decade has seen major advances in the fight against HIV/AIDS and malaria, and has also made progress in the management of communicable, maternal, neonatal, and nutritional diseases. These advancements have largely contributed to the increased average lifespan around the globe, even in some of the poorest countries.

SEE ALSO: Soon We May Live Longer Than 120 Years, Scientists Say

The study, published in The Lancet, was conducted by an international team of researchers led by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington. In a press release, professor Theo Vos of IHME, the study’s lead author, said, “The world has made great progress in health, but now the challenge is to invest in finding more effective ways of preventing or treating the major causes of illness and disability.”

Sadly, the elderly experience much more health problems than young people do. Longer lifespans simply translate into more years spent battling the tough conditions that come with old age.

There was also a stark difference between the countries with the highest and lowest health life expectancy. In 2013, Lesotho had the lowest, at 42 years of age, and Japan had the highest at 73.4 years. This goes to show that although the global life expectancy is rising on a whole, there are still countries in dire need of health reform.

On a more positive note, some countries significantly surpassed the global average of a six year life expectancy increase. Respectively, in Nicaragua and Cambodia, people can expect to live 14.7 and 13.9 more healthy years of life compared to 1990.

The HIV epidemic also added an interesting, but progressive, twist to the data. Between 1990 and 2013, the number of HIV infections increased by a massive 341.5 percent. However, the increased access to treatment resulted in an overall decreased health loss of 23.9 percent.

The leading global causes of health loss in 2013 included ischemic heart disease, lower respiratory infections, stroke, back and neck pain, and road injuries. However, these causes differed slightly between males and females — road injuries were a top-five cause of health loss for males, but didn’t even make it in the top 10 count for females. Females, instead, suffered from more depressive disorders than males.

The leading countries with the highest healthy life expectancy in 2013:

1. Japan 2. Singapore 3. Andorra 4. Iceland 5. Cyprus 6. Israel 7. France 8. Italy 9. South Korea 10. Canada

The countries with the lowest healthy life expectancy in 2013:

1. Lesotho 2. Swaziland 3. Central African Republic 4. Guinea-Bissau 5. Zimbabwe 6. Mozambique 7. Afghanistan 8. Chad 9. South Sudan 10. Zambia

The study brings a number of issues to light. First, despite the fact that there is an increase of the global life expectancy average, there are still countries suffering from extreme poverty and health conditions. Socio-demographic factors like income, education, and medical access certainly play a huge role. Second, the elderly all around the world suffer from dozens of age-related illnesses and disabilities, so the longevity doesn’t necessarily come with happiness.

The need for better treatments for these illnesses and disabilities has been capitalized. When it comes to life, the importance of quality trumps quantity. What good are more days to live if the days aren’t spent living in happiness?

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