6. Life expectancy at age 80

One single indicator, life expectancy at age 80, summarizes old age mortality very well and certainly much better than the life expectancy at birth describes the mortality as a whole. The reason is that the same causes of death dominate the scene throughout the old age span, and all persons at these ages are subject to the same underlying force: senescence. The death rate rises in old age onotonically and even the differences in the pattern of change, observed in Chapter 5, fail to diminish the value of this indicator as an overall expression of death and survival at old ages. It was demonstrated in the first monograph in this series that all notable changes in mortality in the post-war era not only were observed in all old age groups but even took place simultaneously (Kannisto, 1994, pp. 55-59).

        Table 6 gives the life expectancy at 80 in 2countries for which it can be considered at least approximately correct. However, the figures for Ireland, Italy, New Zealand and Portugal are probably too high in the 1950s and possibly in the 1960s, and those for Estonia, Latvia and Poland probably somewhat too high in all periods. The Australian figures should be considered tentative.

The 19 countries with most reliable data are ranked in Table 7 according to life expectancy for both sexes combined, in periods 30 years apart. This interval has been sufficient to extensively alter the relative positions. Iceland has remained the undisputed leader but the three countries of Scandinavia proper, while progressing, have lost ground to others and now occupy the sixth to eight positions. They have been replaced in the leading group by rapidly advancing Japan, Switzerland and France. Finland has risen rapidly from a low level while several countries of Central and Southern Europe have made more moderate progress and lost some rank, and the countries of the former East bloc have remained far behind. The ranking in 1980-90 was used for dividing the countries into low-, medium- and high-mortality groups but Belgium, Luxembourg and Scotland were excluded from the middle group due to unavailability of data above age 100 for a part or all of the study period.

        Figure 7 gives the life expectancies by sex in the 19 countries in the order of the length for both sexes combined. It facilitates spotting cases where the male expectancy is particularly low in relation to the female, namely the Netherlands, England and Wales, and Scotland, as well as the opposite situation in Austria.

        The increase in old age life expectancy is sketched in Figure 8 for the three aggregates. The growth has tended to accelerate over time and the advantage of women over men has increased in all groups. The low and medium groups, in their present composition, began to separate only in the 1960s because high initial mortality in Japan adversely affected the rate of the low group in 1950-60. The increase in individual countries is given in Table 8 which places Japan far ahead of the others. As the advantage among women has been considerable in virtually every country, the overall life expectancy has increased most in those countries - Japan, Switzerland, France and Finland - in which also males have gained substantially. In spite of good gains for women, Norway and the Netherlands rank low in overall progress due to very small gains for men, and the case is even worse for the former East bloc. The figures for Italy are distorted by too high values in 1950-60.

        The increase in life expectancy has not been at all dependent on its initial level as is proven in Figure 9. The correlation coefficient is for men an insignificant -0.27 and for women +0.23. There has therefore been no tendency towards convergence between countries. If there is a natural limit to human survival, it is not -visible at present levels.

        Resorting to historical data, a tendency towards growing life expectancy in old age can be observed in Nordic countries since late last century at least (Figure 10) but the increase was slow and interrupted by setbacks. Around 1970, the development suddenly accelerated in all three countries shown in the figure, particularly among women. At the same time, a notable transformation took place. Until then, the three countries were set apart so that Norwegians of both sexes had higher life expectancy than Swedes of either sex who, in turn, had higher expectancy than Finns of either sex. In the new situation, women of all three countries have higher life expectancy than men in any of them.


Updated by V. Castanova, 1 November 1999