North South gap in life expectancy is narrowing fast

Life expectancy estimates how long a baby born today can expect to live. It varies by wealth, gender and ethnicity. The rich, for example, with better access to food and healthcare, live longer than the poor. In aggregate, nevertheless, life expectancy provides a robust measure of living conditions in a particular country.

Maps on this page show national estimates of Life Expectancy by decade since 1960. The gap between the industrialized North and the non-industrialized South was most marked in 1960. Since then this element of inequality has been declining. People have been living longer all over the world.

By 1980, people in some countries of N W Europe could expect to live beyond 75. By 1990, this was a reasonable expectation in most countries of the industrialized world. In 1960, few people in Asia expected to live more than 50. By the end of the century, most can expect to live to 60 or beyond. China, in particular, made great strides; its average life expectancy almost doubled, increasing from 36 to 70.

Examination of African life expectancies between 1970 and 1999 shows an exception to the general picture of people living longer. In some countries, life expectancy has fallen. The acquired immune deficiency syndrome, AIDS, has lowered life expectancy in some countries of Africa during the 1980s and 1990s.