Humans Have Altered Their Life Expectancy in Extraordinary Ways

Over the course of less than two centuries, human life expectancies have more than doubled in many parts of the world. But the shift has exposed some inequalities when it comes to regional health and wellness.

By Tree Meinch
Nov 29, 2021 2:45 PMMar 17, 2023 8:27 PM
Life expectancy
(Credit: noppawan09/Shutterstock)


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Across cultures and time, humans, like most living things, have exhibited a voracious drive to survive. Evolutionarily, and generationally, this instinct is vital to perpetuating any species. But Homo sapiens, specifically, have altered the number of days that an individual can expect to live on this Earth in extraordinary ways — and we’ve done it in a very short timeframe.

Human life expectancy has made steady gains over the past 200 years at a pace and scale never before seen in history — particularly in the most advanced nations. In fact, average life expectancy has doubled in many countries since the early 1800s, when the global average was likely around 40 years. As of 2019, that average has shot to 73.4 years, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

But this line of progress for humanity has also exposed significant inequalities in regional health around the globe. In 1950, for example, people born in Norway had a life expectancy of 72 years, while in the country of Mali in West Africa it was just 26 years. Similar discrepancies exist today, perpetuated by limited access to food and medicine, economic instability, wars and myriad other factors.

Some of the biggest changes that have contributed to increased life expectancy include the development of vaccines and other modern medicine and access to education, nutrition and income. Most notably, the modern age has vastly reduced the number of infant and child deaths, which has propelled upward the overall average life span of those born in the late 19th century and after.

Significant advances in the second half of the 1900s also began to improve and prolong people’s lives beyond the age of 65 — with effective treatments emerging for serious conditions affecting the heart, brain, blood, some cancers and other chronic diseases. This means that even those who survive the more vulnerable infant and adolescent years are likely to enjoy more years as an adult than the generations before them.

Of course, life expectancies today still vary significantly across different regions and countries in the world. As various countries achieve greater access to medicine and health resources, regional life expectancy numbers can shift rapidly. Considering numbers and data from various world agencies, here are just a handful of insights from the past and present:

  • Hong Kong has the highest life expectancy of any country, with an average of 85 years, according to global data compiled in 2019 by The World Bank.

  • Females outlive males “everywhere in the world,” according to a 2019 report from the WHO.

  • The global average life expectancy increased by 20 years over the past six decades alone, 1960–2019: from about 52 years in 1960 to just over 72 years in 2019, according to The World Bank.

  • The disparity in life spans remains significant between many countries today. As of 2019, the life expectancy at time of birth in the Central African Republic was 53 years, compared to 85 years in Hong Kong — a difference of 32 years.

  • Japan achieved a rapid shift in the second half of the 1900s. For example, a female born in 1950 had a life expectancy of 60 years. If she gave birth to a daughter at age 34, in 1984, the child would be expected to live 80 years — a life expectancy leap of 20 years within one generation.

  • In the U.S., life expectancy (at time of birth) has made great leaps in the past 120 years:

    • 1900: 47.3 years

    • 1950: 68.2 years

    • 2000: 76.8 years

    • 2019: 78.8 years

  • In the U.S., the year 2020 brought a 1.5 year decline in life expectancy — from 78.8 to 77.3. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention called it the largest one-year decline since World War II, when life expectancy dropped 2.9 years from 1942 to 1943. Much of that has been attributed to the loss of life due to COVID-19 and the pandemic.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.