Monday, March 5, 2012

We are set to live even longer than projected

OUR lives are expanding, at an accelerating rate. The life expectancy of a baby boy in Australia has lengthened by three years in the past decade, the Bureau of Statistics estimates and it is set to stretch a lot more.

In Victoria, a baby boy born today can now expect to live to 80, up from 77 just a decade ago.

Baby boys born 40 years ago had a life expectancy of just 68.

The first decade of the 21st century has given baby girls an extra two years to live. A girl born 40 years ago had a life expectancy of 75. But by the year 2000 that had risen to 82 and now it is 84.

Life expectancy has been increasing but the past decade has seen rapid changes all along the age spectrum between 0 and 80. At any age in that range, the risk of dying has shrunk, in some cases dramatically, compared with 10 years ago.

Retired construction worker Peter Farrugia welcomed the data. "Oh, that's good news for me," he laughed. The 64-year-old grandfather from Westmeadows is "pretty fit and healthy", despite suffering a back injury several years ago that cut short his working career. He also has diabetes.

"Now that I'm not doing any heavy work, I'm pretty good," he said. "I try and stay fit by walking three kilometres every day and I watch what I eat. I have to because of my diabetes."

In Victoria, the bureau estimates, the risk of a man dying at the age of 20 has fallen 45 per cent in a decade, from one in 935 to one in 1700. The risk of a 70-year-old male dying has fallen almost 30 per cent, from one in 40 to one in 56.

Boys and men still have a far bigger risk of death at any age than girls and women, at least until the age of 100. But the gap is narrowing.

While female death rates have also fallen sharply in the past decade down 25 per cent at the age of 30, 23 per cent at 60 and 20 per cent at 80 male death rates generally have fallen faster.

Demographer Peter McDonald, of the Australian National University, attributes the closing of the gap to healthier lifestyles. "There's less smoking, less drinking and far fewer fatal motor vehicle accidents," he said. "These always caused more deaths for men than women. Death rates from heart disease have fallen substantially.

"The rising life expectancy is partly due to changes in lifestyle and partly to medical advances: early treatment, better drugs.

"It's very difficult to say how much is due to one or other."

Professor McDonald said the bureau's methodology was based on current death rates and understated the real life spans we can expect as death rates keep falling in future.

But the bureau's estimates suggest there is still a limit. While the past 40 years have added three years to the life expectancy of 80-year-olds, they added only nine months to the life expectancy of 90-year-olds.