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Life expectancy is the most commonly used measure to describe population health. Life expectancy measures how long, on average, a person is expected to live based on current age and sex-specific death rates. It is often expressed as the number of years of life a person born today is expected to live.

Life expectancy in Australia has improved dramatically for both sexes in the last century, particularly life expectancy at birth. Compared with their counterparts in 1901–1910, boys born in 2010–2012 can expect to live around 25 years longer and girls live an extra 26 years.

Figure 1: Life expectancy (years) at birth by sex, 1901–1910 to 2010–2012

Life expectancy (years) at birth by sex, 1901–1910 to 2010–2012 PNG

Sources: ABS 2008; ABS 2013a.

In Australia, a boy born in 2010–2012 can expect to live to the age of 79.9 years and a girl would be expected to live to 84.3 years compared to 55.2 and 58.8 years in 1901–1910 respectively.

Life expectancy changes over the course of a person’s life because as they survive the periods of birth, childhood and adolescence, their chance of reaching older age increases. The life expectancy at different ages can be presented as the number of additional years a person can expect to live or their expected age at death in years.

Men aged 65 in 2010–2012 could expect to live another 19.1 years (an expected age at death of 84.1 years) and the life expectancy of women aged 65 in 2010–2012 was 22.0 years (an expected age at death of 87.0 years).

Table 1: Life expectancy (expected age at death in years) at different ages by sex, 1901–1910, 1960–1962 and 2010–2012
Age (years) Males   Females
1901–1910 1960–1962 2010–2012 1901–1910 1960–1962 2010–2012
0 (birth) 55.2 67.9 79.9 58.8 74.2 84.3
1 61.0 69.5 80.3 63.9 75.5 84.5
15 64.0 70.1 80.4 66.9 76.0 84.7
25 65.6 70.8 80.7 68.4 76.3 84.8
45 69.8 72.4 81.7 72.6 77.4 85.4
65 76.3 77.5 84.1 77.9 80.7 87.0
85 88.7 89.1 91.1 89.2 89.8 92.2

Sources: ABS 2008; ABS 2013a.

Life expectancy of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

For the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population born in 2010–2012, life expectancy was estimated to be 10.6 years lower than that of the non-Indigenous population for males (69.1 years compared with 79.7) and 9.5 years for females (73.7 compared with 83.1).

Since 2005–2007, Indigenous life expectancy at birth for boys increased by 1.6 years and by 0.6 years for girls. Over the same period, the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous life expectancy narrowed by 0.8 years for males and 0.1 years for females.

For more information of Indigenous life expectancy, see the Indigenous observatory.

International comparisons of life expectancy

Australia enjoys one of the highest life expectancies of any country in the world, at 82.0 years in 2011 for males and females at birth combined—ranked seventh among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. The highest life expectancy at birth was 80.7 for males in Iceland, and 85.9 for females in Japan.

Table 2: Life expectancy (years) at birth, top 10 OECD countries by sex, 2011
Country Males Country Females
Iceland 80.7 Japan 85.9
Switzerland 80.5 France 85.7
Italy 80.1 Spain 85.4
Sweden 79.9 Italy 85.3
Israel 79.9 Switzerland 85.0
Australia 79.7 Korea 84.5
Japan 79.4 Australia 84.2
Spain 79.4 Iceland 84.1
Netherlands 79.4 Portugal 84.0
New Zealand 79.4 Austria 83.9

Source: OECD 2013.

Calculating life expectancy

Life expectancy is calculated using a statistical tool called a life table. A life table is generated from current age- and sex-specific death rates in a given population. The resulting values are used to estimate the likelihood of someone in a hypothetical population dying before their next birthday.

Calculating a person’s life expectancy is based on death patterns in the population, and assumes that current death rates will persist throughout that person’s life.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) publishes life tables and calculates life expectancy for the Australian population and for some groups of the population. These measures are based on 3 years of data to reduce the effect of variations in death rates from year to year.

Life expectancy is related to the average age at death within a population and is inversely related to the population death rates at that time; that is, the lower the death rates the greater the life expectancy. It varies between population groups and over time. High life expectancy is also often associated with low infant and child death rates, an ageing population and access to high quality health care.

Differences in life expectancy over time may be due to changes in the patterns of death due to certain conditions. For example, in 1922 infectious disease accounted for 15% of all deaths in Australia and on average people dying from these diseases were 27 years old. By comparison, in 2011 infectious diseases accounted for less than 2% of deaths and the average age at death for these diseases was closer to 75 years. For more information like this and for other causes, see the General Record of Incidence in Mortality (GRIM) Books.

Further information

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2008. Australian Historical Population Statistics, 2008. ABS cat. no. 3105.0.65.001. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2013a. Deaths, Australia, 2012. ABS cat. no. 3302.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2013b. Life Tables for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, 2010–2012. ABS cat. no. 3302.0.55.003. Canberra: ABS.

OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) 2013. OECD health data online, June 2013. Paris: OECD. Viewed 26 August 2013.