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, from birth, a person is expected to live.

Trends in life expectancy

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 2016–2018 can expect to live around 34 years longer.

Figure 6.1: Life expectancy (years) at birth by sex, 1881–1890 to 2016–2018

The line graph shows that life expectancy at birth increased from 1881–1890 to 2016–2018. Life expectancy at birth for males increased from 47.2 years in 1881–1890 to 80.7 years in 2016–2018. Life expectancy at birth for females increased from 50.8 years in 1881–1890 to 84.9 years in 2016–2018.

Sources: ABS 2014a; ABS 2014b; ABS 2015; ABS 2016; ABS 2017; ABS 2018a; ABS 2019; (Table S6.1).

In Australia, a boy born in 2016–2018 can expect to live to the age of 80.7 years and a girl would be expected to live to 84.9 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 2016–2018 could expect to live another 19.9 years (an expected age at death of 84.9 years), and women aged 65 in 2016–2018 could expect to live another 22.6 years (an expected age at death of 87.6 years).

Table 6.1: Life expectancy (expected age at death in years) at different ages by sex, 1881–1890, 1960–1962 and 2016–2018

Age (years) Males
1881–1890
Males
1960–1962
Males
2016–2018
Females
1881–1890
Females
1960–1962
Females
2016–2018
0 (birth) 47.2 67.9 80.7 50.8 74.2 84.9
1 54.3 69.5 81.0 57.4 75.5 85.1
15 59.5 70.1 81.1 62.5 76.0 85.2
25 62.1 70.8 81.4 64.7 76.3 85.4
45 68.0 72.4 82.4 70.6 77.4 85.9
65 76.1 77.5 84.9 77.3 80.7 87.6
85 88.9 89.1 91.4 88.9 89.8 92.5
95 97.2 97.3 98.2 97.3 97.6 98.4

Sources: ABS 2014a; ABS 2018a.

Life expectancy of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

For the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population born in 2015–2017, life expectancy was estimated to be 8.6 years lower than that of the non-Indigenous population for males (71.6 years compared with 80.2) and 7.8 years for females (75.6 years compared with 83.4).

Between 2005–2007 and 2015–2017, Indigenous life expectancy at birth for boys increased by 4.4 years and by 2.7 years for girls. Over the same period, the difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous life expectancy narrowed by 2.9 years for males and 1.9 years for females.

As shown in Table 6.2, this has resulted in a small decline in the life expectancy difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Table 6.2: Life expectancy (years) at birth, by sex and Indigenous status, 2005–2007, 2010–2012 and 2015–2017
Indigenous status Males
2005–2007
Males
2010–2012
Males
2015–2017
Females
2005–2007
Females
2010–2012
Females
2015–2017
Indigenous 67.2 69.1 71.6 72.9 73.7 75.6
Non-Indigenous 78.7 79.7 80.2 82.6 83.1 83.4
Difference 11.5 10.6 8.6 9.7 9.5 7.8

Sources: ABS 2009; ABS 2013; ABS 2018b.

International comparisons of life expectancy

Australia enjoys one of the highest life expectancies in the world, at 82.8 years in 2018 for males and females at birth combined—ranked seventh among 37 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. The country with the highest life expectancy at birth for males was Switzerland (81.9 years), and for females was Japan (87.3 years).

Table 6.3: Life expectancy (years) at birth, top 10 OECD countries by sex, 2018

Rank

Country

Males

Country

Females

Country

Persons

1

Switzerland

81.9

Japan

87.3

Japan

84.2

2

Iceland

81.3

Spain

86.3

Switzerland

83.8

3

Italy

81.2

France

85.9

Spain

83.5

4

Japan

81.1

Korea

85.7

Italy

83.4

5 Norway

81.1

Switzerland

85.7

Iceland

82.9

6

Israel

80.9

Italy

85.6

Israel

82.9

7

Sweden

80.9

Australia

84.9

Australia

82.8

8 Australia 80.7 Israel 84.8 France 82.8
9 Spain

80.7

Luxembourg

84.6

Norway

82.8

10 Ireland

80.5

Finland

84.5

Korea

82.7

11

Netherlands

80.3

Iceland

84.5

Sweden

82.6

12

Luxembourg

80.1

Norway

84.5

Luxembourg

82.4

Source: OECD 2020 (Table S6.2).  

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 2018, infectious diseases accounted for less than 2% of deaths and the average age at death for these diseases was 79 years. For more information on this and other causes, see the AIHW General Record of Incidence in Mortality (GRIM) books.

Health-adjusted life expectancy

Burden of disease measures include a measure of health-adjusted life expectancy which extends the concept of life expectancy by considering the time spent living with the health consequences of disease and injury. The measure reflects the average number of years of life expected in full health. For more information, see Burden of disease.