How Global Health and Wealth Has Changed Over 221 Years
At the dawn of the 19th century, global life expectancy was only 28.5 years.
Outbreaks, war, and famine would still kill millions of people at regular intervals. These issues are still stubbornly present in 21st century society, but broadly speaking, the situation around the world has vastly improved. Today, most of humanity lives in countries where the life expectancy is above the typical retirement age of 65.
At the same time, while inequality remains a hot button topic within countries, income disparity between countries is slowing beginning to narrow.
This animated visualization, created by James Eagle, tracks the evolution of health and wealth factors in countries around the world. For further exploration, Gapminder also has a fantastic interactive chart that showcases the same dataset.
The Journey to the Upper-Right Quadrant
In general terms, history has seen health practices improve and countries become increasingly wealthy–trends that are reflected in this visualization. In fact, most countries drift towards the upper-right quadrant over the 221 years covered in the dataset.
However, that path to the top-right, which indicates high levels of both life expectancy and GDP per capita, is rarely a linear journey. Here are some of the noteworthy events and milestones to watch out for while viewing the animation.
1880s: Breaking the 50-Year Barrier
In the late 19th century, Nordic countries such as Sweden and Norway already found themselves past the 50-year life expectancy mark. This was a significant milestone considering the global life expectancy was a full 20 years shorter at the time. It wasn’t until the year 1960 that the global life expectancy would catch up.
1918: The Spanish Flu and WWI
At times, a confluence of factors can impact health and wealth in countries and regions. In this case, World War I coincided with one of the deadliest pandemics in history, leading to global implications. In the animation, this is abundantly clear as the entire cluster of circles takes a nose dive for a short period of time.
1933, 1960: Communist Famines
At various points in history, human decisions can have catastrophic consequences. This was the case in the Soviet Union (1933) and the People’s Republic of China (1960), where life expectancy plummeted during famines that killed millions of people. These extreme events are easy to spot in the animation due to the large populations of the countries in question.
1960s: Oil Economies Kick into High Gear
During this time, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia all experience massive booms in wealth, and in the following decade, smaller countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait rocket to the right edge of the visualization.
In following decades, both Iran and Iraq can be seen experiencing wild fluctuations in both health and wealth as regime changes and conflict begin to destabilize the region.
1990s: AIDS in Africa
In the animation, a number of countries plummet in unison at the end of the 20th century. These are sub-Saharan African countries that were hit hard by the AIDS pandemic. At its peak in the early ’00s, the disease accounted for more than half of deaths in some countries.
1995: Breaking the 65-Year Barrier
Global life expectancy reaches retirement age. At this point in time, there is a clear divide in both health and wealth between African and South Asian countries and the rest of the world. Thankfully, that gap is would continue to narrow in coming years.
1990-2000s: China’s Economic Rise
With a population well over a billion people, it’s impossible to ignore China in any global overview. Starting from the early ’90s, China begins its march from the left to right side of the chart, highlighting the unprecedented economic growth it experienced during that time.
What the Future Holds
If current trends continue, global life expectancy is expected to surpass the 80-year mark by 2100. And, sub-Saharan Africa, which has the lowest life expectancy today, is expected to mostly close the gap, reaching 75 years of age.
Wealth is also expected to increase nearly across the board, with the biggest gains coming from places like Vietnam, Nigeria, and the Philippines. Some experts are projecting the world economy as a whole to double in size by 2050.
There are always bumps along the way, but it appears that the journey to the upper-right quadrant is still very much underway.
Charted: Average Years Left to Live by Age
Visualizing the number of years left to live for Americans at every age, reveals the broader trends in American life expectancy.
How Many Years Do You Have Left to Live?
At the start of the 19th century, when there fewer than 1 billion humans on the earth, global life expectancy at birth stood at roughly 29 years.
This is a startlingly low figure—because life expectancy is a statistical projection of how many more years a person can expect to live, based on the mortality rates at the time. And since the infant mortality rate in particular was so high, life expectancies accurately summarized the low likelihood of many babies living to adulthood.
However, since the 1920s, life expectancy across all ages has improved leaps and bounds, thanks to rapid advancements in nutrition, healthcare, and sanitation.
We visualized the current American life expectancy by age and gender, using data from the Office of Social Security, which bases their current projections on 2020 mortality rates.
American Life Expectancy at Every Age
A key takeaway with life expectancy is that it increases as one gets older. This is easily seen in the table below, which lists the remaining years left to live at a given age for an American male and the projected life expectancy.
|Age||Years Remaining (Men)||Life Expectancy (Men)|
At birth, an average American baby boy can expect to live till just past 74. But if the boy reaches adulthood, then at 21 he might live to a full year more, past 75. This trend persists even towards the end of life when the years we have left drop rapidly, influenced by the higher likelihood of death.
American women, on the other hand, have a higher life expectancy than men. At birth the gap is close to six years, narrowing steadily to around one year by 85.
Interestingly, women outlive men in nearly every country in the world, due to a mix of sociological, behavioral, and biological reasons.
COVID-19: Reversing A Decade of Increasing American Life Expectancy
While the current American life expectancy at birth seems reasonably high, it is nearly two years lower than the 2022 figure which used the 2019 mortality rate. It is also lower than the life expectancy at birth in 2009, which used 2005 mortality rate.
at Birth (Men)
at Birth (Women)
American mortality rates went up 17% between 2019–2020, in part because of COVID-19, in turn affecting life expectancy. The U.S. also had a higher COVID-19 mortality rate compared to its peers two years after the pandemic first struck.
Thus, American life expectancy may not improve immediately to 2019 levels, which can affect insurance premiums, pension benefits, and plans.
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