A baby born today in China can now, on average, expect to live a longer healthy life than one born in the United States. That’s one of the key findings from the latest World Health Statistics report by the World Health Organization (WHO), which analyses global medical data relating to 2016.
Chinese babies can now expect to enjoy 68.7 years in ‘full health’ (discounting years lived in less than full health due to disease and/or injury), a figure which falls to 68.5 for their American equivalents. This is the first recorded time that China has led the US on this measure. This is partly due to falling living standards in the United States; the US was one of only five countries (the others being Somalia, Afghanistan, Georgia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines) whose healthy life expectancy at birth fell in 2016, from 68.6 years in 2015. At the same time, the length of healthy lives which Chinese babies can expect to live has climbed from 68.4 in 2015, and as low as 64.8 back in 2000.
Carol Jagger, deputy director of the Newcastle University Institute for Ageing (NUIA), outlines how these particular WHO figures lean heavily on data from the Global Burden of Disease study that records years lived with disability. ‘The low years lived with disability rates in China were largely determined by much lower prevalence of headaches, musculoskeletal disorders – in particular low back pain – major depressive disorder, iron-deficiency anaemia, falls, and anxiety,’ she explains.
Jagger is keen to stress scepticism about reading too much into these incremental changes in demographic data, especially when comparing two different countries. ‘The difference of .2 of a year in healthy life expectancy is unlikely to be either statistically or clinically significant,’ she argues, ‘and the US will have a higher prevalence of years lived with disability because they are a more aged population.’
Nevertheless, while the US still leads China for total life expectancy at birth (including those periods not covered by the ‘full health’ definition) – by 78.5 years to only 76.4 – the same general trend is being observed; China’s has gradually risen, from 72.1 in 2000, while the US saw a peak of 78.9 in 2014, and is now slowly in decline.
This was published in the August 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
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