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Life expectancy

Definition

Life expectancy at birth indicates the total number of years a person could expect to live, based on the mortality rates of the population at each age in a given year or period.

Relevance

Life expectancy at birth is a key summary indicator of fatal health outcomes, ie the survival experience of the population.

Current level and trends

Based on the mortality experiences of New Zealanders in the period 2007–2009, life expectancy at birth was 78.4 years for males and 82.4 years for females. Since the mid-1980s, gains in longevity have been greater for males than for females. Between 1985–1987 and 2007–2009, life expectancy at birth increased by 7.3 years for males and 5.3 years for females. As a result, the gap between males and females in life expectancy narrowed from 6.0 years to 4.0 years over this period.

The gains in life expectancy at birth since the mid-1980s can be attributed mainly to reduced death rates for people in the late-working and retirement age groups (55–84 years). However, reduced death rates for infants (from 11.2 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1986 to 4.9 per 1,000 in 2009), for people aged 45–54 years, and for women aged 85 years and over were also significant.

Figure H2.1 Life expectancy at birth, by sex, 1985–1987 to 2007–2009

Figure H2.1 Life expectancy at birth, by sex, 1985–1987 to 2007–2009

Source: Statistics New Zealand

Note: The period life table data in this graph is from complete life tables for all periods up to 2005–2007 and an abridged life table for 2007–2009.

Ethnic differences

There are marked ethnic differences in life expectancy. In 2005–2007, male life expectancy at birth was 79.0 years for non-Māori and 70.4 years for Māori, a difference of 8.6 years. Female life expectancy at birth was 83.0 years for non-Māori and 75.1 years for Māori, a difference of 7.9 years.

The pace of improvement in life expectancy has varied by ethnic group. For non-Māori, there was a fairly steady increase in life expectancy at birth over the period from 1985–1987 to 2005–2007, with males gaining 7.6 years and females 5.6 years. For Māori, there was little change during the 1980s, but a substantial improvement in the 10 years to 2005–2007 (a gain of 3.8 years for both sexes). This exceeded the improvement for non-Māori over the same period (3.6 years for males and 2.4 years for females). However, the overall gain in Māori life expectancy from 1985–1987 to 2005–2007 (5.5 years for males, 4.6 years for females) was less than that for non-Māori.

Figure H2.2 Life expectancy at birth, by ethnic group and sex, 1950–1952 to 2005–2007

Figure H2.2 Life expectancy at birth, by ethnic group and sex, 1950–1952 to 2005–2007

Source: Statistics New Zealand

Note: Ministry of Health data has been used for 1980–1982 to 1995–1997. It includes an adjustment for the undercount of Māori deaths relative to the Māori population by linking mortality to census records.

Socio-economic differences

There is an association between life expectancy and the level of deprivation in the area where people live. In 2005–2007, males in the least deprived 10th of small areas in New Zealand could expect to live 8.8 years longer than males in the most deprived 10th of small areas (82.1 versus 73.3 years). For females, the difference was smaller, but still substantial, at 5.9 years (84.6 versus 78.7 years). These differences illustrate the links between socio-economic status and health.

International comparison

In 2005–2007, New Zealanders’ life expectancy at birth was 82.2 years for females and 78.0 years for males. This was slightly below the OECD median of 82.7 years for females and slightly above the OECD median of 77.6 years for males for the latest year up to 2008. Out of 30 OECD countries, New Zealand was ranked 21st for females and 10th equal for males. In 1960–1961, New Zealand’s ranking was ninth for females and seventh equal for males. Through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, longevity improved faster in many other OECD countries than it did in New Zealand. Since the 1980s, faster-than-average gains in life expectancy in New Zealand, particularly for males, have improved New Zealand’s relative position.

In 2007–2008, life expectancy at birth was highest for females in Japan (86.1 years) and highest for males in Switzerland (79.8 years). Compared to New Zealand, female life expectancy was higher in Australia (83.7 years) and Canada (83.0 years in 2007), similar in Ireland (82.3 years), but lower in the United Kingdom (81.8 years) and the United States (80.4 years). Male life expectancy was higher in Australia (79.2 years), similar in Canada (78.3 years), and lower in the United Kingdom (77.6 years in 2007), Ireland (77.5 years) and the United States (75.3 years in 2007).26

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