World health report

Conquering suffering, enriching humanity

Life expectancy, health expectancy

Dramatic increases in life expectancy, combined with profound changes in lifestyles, will lead to global epidemics of cancer and other chronic diseases in the next two decades. The main result will be a huge increase in human suffering and disability. There is an urgent need to find ways to reduce that coming burden.

Half a century ago, most people died before the age of 50. Now, the great majority live well beyond that age. Global average life expectancy at birth reached 65 years in 1996.

However, while extending our life span is a desirable goal in itself, it is much more so if it can be accompanied by freedom from additional years of suffering poverty, pain or disability. Unfortunately, for many millions of people, there is as yet no such freedom. The quality of human life is at least as important as its quantity. Individuals are entitled to be concerned not so much about their life expectancy as their health expectancy.

Health expectancy can be defined as life expectancy in good health, and amounts to the average number of years an individual can expect to live in such a favourable state. It is vital to realize that increased longevity does not come free. Every year many millions die prematurely or are disabled by diseases and conditions that are to a large extent preventable. Longer life can be a penalty as well as a prize. A large part of the price to be paid is in the currency of chronic disease, the main subject of this report.