Lee Seachrest points to an article, “Life expectancy and disparity: an international comparison of life table data,” by James Vaupel, Zhen Zhang, and Alyson van Raalte. This paper has killer graphs. Here are their results:
In 89 of the 170 years from 1840 to 2009, the country with the highest male life expectancy also had the lowest male life disparity. This was true in 86 years for female life expectancy and disparity. In all years, the top several life expectancy leaders were also the top life disparity leaders. Although only 38% of deaths were premature, fully 84% of the increase in life expectancy resulted from averting premature deaths. The reduction in life disparity resulted from reductions in early-life disparity, that is, disparity caused by premature deaths; late-life disparity levels remained roughly constant.
The authors also note:
Reducing early-life disparities helps people plan their less-uncertain lifetimes. A higher likelihood of surviving to old age makes savings more worthwhile, raises the value of individual and public investments in education and training, and increases the prevalence of long-term relationships. Hence, healthy longevity is a prime driver of a country’s wealth and well-being. While some degree of income inequality might create incentives to work harder, premature deaths bring little benefit and impose major costs.
They also write something that puzzles me:
Russia, the USA and other laggards can learn much from research on the reasons why various countries (including Japan, France, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland) have been more successful in reducing premature deaths. The reasons involve healthcare, social policies, personal behaviour (especially cigarette smoking and alcohol abuse), and the safety and salubriousness of the environment.
I don’t know much about salubriousness, but I thought the smoking rate among men is lower in the U.S. than in Japan and much of Europe, and maybe we have less alcohol abuse here too. So I’m not sure how the above paragraph can make sense.
Sechrest also sent along this article, “Differences in life expectancy due to race and educational differences are widening, and many may not catch up,” by S. Jay Olshansky and 14 (!) others:
It has long been known that despite well-documented improvements in longevity for most Americans, alarming disparities persist among racial groups and between the well-educated and those with less education. . . . in 2008 US adult men and women with fewer than twelve years of education had life expectancies not much better than those of all adults in the 1950s and 1960s. When race and education are combined, the disparity is even more striking. In 2008 white US men and women with 16 years or more of schooling had life expectancies far greater than black Americans with fewer than 12 years of education—14.2 years more for white men than black men, and 10.3 years more for white women than black women. These gaps have widened over time and have led to at least two “Americas,” if not multiple others, in terms of life expectancy, demarcated by level of education and racial-group membership.
That’s pretty scary! But I’m suspicious of the causal reasoning that leads to the final sentence in their abstract:
The message for policy makers is clear: implement educational enhancements at young, middle, and older ages for people of all races, to reduce the large gap in health and longevity that persists today.