28 Aug 2015

A longer lifespan - but at what cost?

4:45 pm on 28 August 2015

New Zealanders are living longer, but many - particularly women - are also living sicker lives for longer.

An elderly woman in her home with her medical alert device.

An elderly woman in her home with a medical alert device in New Zealand. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

People around the world are living for more years while experiencing illness and disability, according to a study of all major diseases and injuries in 188 countries.

General health has improved worldwide, thanks to significant progress against infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and malaria in the past decade and gains in fighting maternal and child illnesses.

Research published in today's Lancet shows the life expectancy for men in this country has risen from 72.49 years for those born in 1990 to 78.61 years for those born in 2013.

For women, who have a life expectancy of 78 years when born in 1990, it has risen to 82.66 years for those born in 2013.

But healthy life expectancy has not increased as much, so people are living for more years while experiencing illness and disability, according to the analysis published in the medical journal.

For the same birth years, the healthy life expectancy for men - without disability caused by illness - has lifted from 63.27 years to 68.19 years and for women from 67.18 years to just 70.48 years.

Conditions disabling New Zealanders include back and neck pain, hip problems, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease common in smokers, depression, Alzheimer's, lung cancer, strokes, and diabetes.

"The world has made great progress in health, but now the challenge is to invest in finding more effective ways of preventing or treating the major causes of illness and disability," said Theo Vos, a professor at the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, who led the analysis.

Healthy life expectancy at birth rose by 5.4 years - from 56.9 in 1990 to 62.3 in 2013.

Healthy life expectancy takes into account both mortality and the impact of non-fatal conditions and chronic illnesses like heart and lung diseases, diabetes and serious injuries.

Those detract from quality of life and impose heavy cost and resources burdens.

For most of the 188 countries studied, changes in healthy life expectancy between 1990 and 2013 were "significant and positive", the researchers said.

But in many - among them Belize, Botswana and Syria - healthy life expectancy in 2013 was not much higher than in 1990.

And in some, including South Africa, Paraguay and Belarus, healthy life expectancy dropped.

The study also found stark differences between countries with the highest and lowest healthy life expectancies.

Lesotho had the world's lowest healthy life expectancy, at 42 years, while Japan had the highest, at 73.4 years.

- ABC/Reuters