Life expectancy

Life expectancy is the most commonly used measure to describe population health and reflects the overall mortality level of a population. Life expectancy measures how long, on average, a person is expected to live based on current age and sex-specific death rates. In summarising mortality patterns, life expectancy 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 1881–1890, boys and girls born in 2013–2015 can expect to live around 33 and 34 years longer, respectively.

Figure 1: Life expectancy (years) at birth by sex, 1881–1890 to 2013–2015

The line graph shows that life expectancy at birth increased from 1881–1890 to 2012–2014. Life expectancy at birth for males increased from 47.2 years in 1881–1890 to 80.3 years in 2012–2014. Life expectancy at birth for females increased from 50.8 years in 1881–1890 to 84.4 years in 2012–2014.

Sources: ABS 2014a; ABS 2014b; ABS 2015; ABS 2016 (Table S1).

In Australia, a boy born in 2013–2015 can expect to live to the age of 80.4 years and a girl would be expected to live to 84.5 years compared to 47.2 and 50.8 years, respectively, in 1881–1890.

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 2013–2015 could expect to live another 19.5 years (an expected age at death of 84.5 years) and the life expectancy of women aged 65 in 2013–2015 was 22.3 years (an expected age at death of 87.3 years).

Table 1: Life expectancy (expected age at death in years) at different ages by sex, 1881–1890, 1960–1962 and 2013–2015
Age (years) Males
0 (birth) 47.2 67.9 80.4 50.8 74.2 84.5
1 54.3 69.5 80.7 57.4 75.5 84.8
15 59.5 70.1 80.8 62.5 76.0 84.9
25 62.1 70.8 81.1 64.7 76.3 85.1
45 68.0 72.4 82.1 70.6 77.4 85.6
65 76.1 77.5 84.5 77.3 80.7 87.3
85 88.9 89.1 91.2 88.9 89.8 92.2
95 97.2 97.3 98.0 97.3 97.6 98.3

Sources: ABS 2014a; ABS 2016 (Table S1).

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).

Between 2005–2007 and 2010–2012, 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.

International comparisons of life expectancy

Australia enjoys one of the highest life expectancies of any country in the world, at 82.4 years in 2014 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 81.3 for males in Iceland, and 86.8 for females in Japan.

Table 2: Life expectancy (years) at birth, top 10 OECD countries by sex, 2014
Country Males Country Females
Iceland 81.3 Japan 86.8
Switzerland 81.1 Spain 86.2
Italy 80.7 France 86.0
Japan 80.5 Italy 85.6
Spain 80.4 Korea 85.5
Sweden 80.4 Switzerland 85.4
Australia 80.3 Luxembourg 85.2
Israel 80.3 Iceland 84.5
Norway 80.1 Australia 84.4
Netherlands 80.0 Portugal 84.4

Source: OECD 2016 (Table S2).

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 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 2014 infectious diseases accounted for less than 2% of deaths and the average age at death for these diseases was closer to 76 years. For more information like this and for other causes, see the AIHW General Record of Incidence in Mortality (GRIM) Books.