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Dynamics of life expectancy and life span equality

As people live longer, ages at death are becoming more similar. This dual advance over the last two centuries, a central aim of public health policies, is a major achievement of modern civilization. Some recent exceptions to the joint rise of life expectancy and life span equality, however, make it difficult to determine the underlying causes of this relationship. Here, we develop a unifying framework to study life expectancy and life span equality over time, relying on concepts about the pace and shape of aging.

We study the dynamic relationship between life expectancy and life span equality with reliable data from the Human Mortality Database for 49 countries and regions with emphasis on the long time series of  Swedish mortality. Our results demonstrate that both changes in life expectancy and life span equality are weighted totals of rates of progress in reducing mortality. This finding holds for three different measures of the variability of life spans. The weights evolve over time and indicate the ages at which reductions in mortality increase life expectancy and life span equality: the more progress at the youngest ages, the tighter the relationship. The link between life expectancy and life span equality is especially strong when life expectancy is less than 70 y. In recent decades, life expectancy and life span equality have occasionally moved in opposite directions due to larger improvements in mortality at older ages or a slowdown in declines in midlife mortality. Saving lives at ages below life expectancy is the key to increasing both life expectancy and life span equality.

Significance

Why life expectancy and life span equality have increased together is a question of scientific and social interest. Both measures are calculated for a calendar year and might not  describe a cohort’s actual life course. Nonetheless, life expectancy provides a useful measure of average life spans, and life span equality gives insights into uncertainty about and social disparities in age at death. We show how patterns of change in life expectancy and life span equality are described by trajectories of mortality improvements over age and time. The strength of the relationship between life expectancy and life span equality is not coincidental but rather a result of progress in saving lives at specific ages: the more lives saved at the youngest ages, the stronger the relationship is.

You can find the full paper here.