South Korean life spans race past 90 years, while the U.S. falls behind

Woman in Daegu selling clothing (Credit: William Bright / Flickr)

South Korean women could be the first to live longer than 90 years thanks to a healthy lifestyle and equitable health care. According to a new study published last week, life spans should increase in all 35 of the high-income countries examined if business continues as usual. Sadly, gains are “notably low” in the U.S. – the only country in the study without universal health care.

The study – a statistical blend of 21 models published in the Lancet – predicted that the life expectancy of South Korean women could lead the world by 2030 at 90.8 years. Women in France and Japan – who have lived the longest for decades – are likely to follow at 88.6 years and 88.4 years old respectively.

The gender gap in life span is also predicted to shrink as men adopt less risky lifestyles like women. South Korean men are projected to live longest at 84.1 years, followed closely by Australian and Swiss men, both at 84 years.

“As recently as the turn of the century, many researchers believed that life expectancy would never surpass 90 years,” lead author Majid Ezzati, professor at Imperial College London, said in a press release. “Our predictions of increasing life spans highlight our public health and health care successes.”

South Korea’s achievements are especially worth noting not only because it could lead the world in life expectancy by 2030, but because it has made consistent gains with some of the largest projected increases.

According to the study, the life spans of South Korean women have increased by an average of 3.7 years per decade since 1985, when they were ranked 29th. The gains show no indication of slowing and are likely a result of “broad-based inclusive improvements in economic status and social capital,” including education and access to health care.

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Taken together, these factors have reduced death from infections in the post-war era, postpone death from chronic diseases and improved nutrition.

“Height in adulthood is a good indicator – not perfect, but a very good indicator – of childhood health and nutrition and environment,” Ezzati said in an interview with Humanosphere. It’s also associated with longevity.

Last year he published a paper that compared adult height in every country in the world. “South Korean women by far outperformed anybody else,” he said, and their men were among the top gains in height as well.

“Clearly something is happening in early childhood that is doing well across the country so that the average goes up,” Ezzati said.

Later in life, South Koreans have maintained lower weight and blood pressure, as well as smoking in women.

The United States, on the other hand, stands in sharp contrast. It has the highest body-mass index, infant and maternal mortality rate, homicide rate and was the first developed country to see increases in adult height stall, even reverse.

It’s also the only country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that doesn’t provide its citizens universal health coverage, and it has the “largest share of unmet health-care needs due to financial costs.”

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“It very much could be the case that there are some people in the U.S. that are getting the best care in the world if you are well or adequately insured and live in a place that has great hospitals,” Ezzati said. “There are others who are underinsured – who are uninsured.”

Some communities in the U.S. have already experienced a stagnation or even decline in life expectancy due to social inequalities that undermine nutrition and insufficient or inequitable care for chronic diseases and violence. Already with low life expectancy at birth compared to other high-income countries, the U.S. is now projected to make among the least gains in both men and women by 2030, falling further behind globally.

“South Korea is far from being an equal society. It has its own share of inequalities and they’re very real,” Ezzati said. “I think it just happens that in certain stages of life at least – if not throughout the whole life – they have had less of it than some of the Western countries.”

Moving forward, governments will have to adjust health care and policies like social security to accommodate an aging population. It’s a struggle many developed Asian countries with low birth rates are already experiencing.

Of course, the model cannot take into account major political shocks – like the fall of Soviet Union, which boosted life expectancy in Eastern Europe – or revolutionary medical breakthroughs. But for now, it’s a telling comparison of health systems that are effective or not.

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About Author

Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.

  • Paul Southworth

    A link to the article being discussed would be really useful!

    • Joanne Lu

      Sorry about that – must have missed it! Added now.