How has life expectancy changed over time?

In 1841 the average newborn girl was not expected to see her 43rd birthday. Thankfully times have changed and so have life expectancies in the 170 years since the first lifetable was constructed1.

The information contained in the Decennial Life Tables release, produced every 10 years, provides a fascinating insight into those changes, spanning three centuries.

In 2011 life expectancy at birth is almost double what it was in 1841

Life expectancy at birth, England and Wales, 1841 to 2011

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Life tables calculate the number of years a person is expected to live given that they have already reached a certain age. For example, a girl born in 2011 is expected to reach age 82.8, however someone who was 60 years old already in 2011 was expected to live a further 25.2 years, that is until that are 85.

A newborn boy was expected to live to 40.2 in 1841, compared to 79.0 in 2011, whereas a baby girl was expected to live to 42.2 in 1841 and 82.8 in 2011.

The low life expectancies of the 19th century can be explained by the higher number of infant deaths. Survival past the first year of life was historically a predominant factor in life expectancies and once a child had reached five years of age, he or she was much more likely to reach a greater age.

Whereas a newborn boy was expected to live to age 40.2 in 1841, a one-year-old boy in that same year had a life expectancy of 46.7 years – 6.6 years higher than a newborn.

Historically infant deaths were a major factor in life expectancies

Average age expected to reach by current age, males, England and Wales, 1841 to 2011

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This graph compares the average age a male is expected to reach according to their current age. It highlights the increase in life expectancy at birth since the 19th century. Although it shows only males, females show a similar pattern.

In the 1840s around 15% of babies died before their first birthday compared with 0.4% in 2011, demonstrating the vast improvements made in reducing infant mortality.

The additional life expectancy of a one-year-old compared with a newborn continued to increase from 1841 to 1891; at its peak there was a difference of 8.1 years for boys and 6.8 years for girls.

This may have been due to the fact that it was not a legal requirement to register births until 1874, so data prior to this may have been less accurate (Births and Deaths Act 1874).

There has been a steady decline since the early 20th century, because of the improvements in public hygiene, childhood immunisations and the creation of the NHS (1948).

Females have consistently had a higher life expectancy than males…but the gap in 2011 is almost twice what it was in 1841

Female life expectancy at birth was 3.8 years higher than for men in 2011, compared to 2.0 years in 1841.

This smaller gap in the mid-19th century was in part due to diseases and high infant mortality that affected men and women indiscriminately.

Difference in male and female life expectancy at birth, England, 1841 to 2010-12

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In the late 18th and early 19th centuries the gap between male and female life expectancies began to slowly widen, peaking at 6.3 in 1971. It has been narrowing since, due to faster improvements in mortality for men than for women.

As well as men’s working conditions being a factor, the widening gap can be explained by the decline in tuberculosis (TB). Deaths from the disease, which had been rife in the 17th and 18th centuries, and affected women more than men, had begun to decline in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the 20th century more women were surviving childbirth and were having fewer children, reducing their risk of dying in labour.

Since the 1970s, men have been catching women up in terms of survival. The decline of the mining industry and the move away from physical labour and manufacturing industries towards the service sector is a likely cause, along with a reduction in the proportion of men smoking.

Life expectancy at older ages continues to increase meaning our pensions need to last longer

Life expectancy at age 65, England and Wales, 1841 to 2011

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The life expectancy of a woman aged 65 in 1841 was 11.5 years and reached 20.9 years in 2011. For men of the same age it was 10.9 years in 1841 and 18.3 years in 2011. But how has this affected how long pensions need to last?

In 1908 when the State Pension was first introduced for those aged 70 and over, a woman of this age was expected to live on average an additional 9.3 years, and a man 8.4 years (1901), meaning pensions needed to last around 9 years. However, compare this to the latest figures and we see how pensions need to last longer. The current state pension age for men is 65 and for women it will reach 65 by November 2018. In 2011 men and women at this age were expected to live for approximately 20 more years, meaning we need to make our pensions last more than twice as long as when they were first introduced.

Find out how long you need to make your pension last using this interactive tool.

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