The Grapevine

Human Life Expectancy In 2040: How It Could Change In 20 Years

Pondering over the future? Aside from questions concerning flying cars, people often wonder about the state of global health. Researchers from the University of Washington (UW) offer their insight in a new report featuring a forecast of what life expectancy could look like two decades from now. 

The good news is all countries around the world may see at least a slight uptick in life expectancy. But the pace of increase may be slower than before and largely dependent on whether governments take adequate measures to improve health outcomes. Better access to clean water, for example, could make a big difference in some developing nations.

Worsening health due to obesity is set to be one of the major threats to longevity, the report stated. Other contributing factors include smoking, alcohol use, and air pollution — all of which vary across countries. So, in their rankings, which nation do the researchers expect to come out on top?

In 2040, Spain is expected to place first in the world with an average lifespan of 85.8 years. Thus, they could overtake Japan, which may be pushed to second place with a life expectancy of 85.7 years.

Spain fares really well in key health drivers like body weight, blood pressure, and blood sugar according to Dr. Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at UW. The dietary pattern may play a key role here given the prevalence of the healthful Mediterranean diet in the European region.

Nevertheless, he does note the nation can do better in terms of tobacco use, encouraging more interventions against smoking in general.

"Men are not doing so well," he said. "Smoking is probably part of that and obesity has gone up for men but really not for women."

The United States — at 79.8 years — could see the biggest drop among high-income countries, falling from 43rd place in their 2016 ranking to the 64th spot by 2040. Murray notes life expectancy among Americans has taken quite a hit due to the opioid crisis.

The researchers also predict an increase in premature deaths from injuries due to car accidents and other such events. When examining health conditions, the leading causes of early death included diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chronic kidney disease, and lung cancer.

The report provides this forecast as a part of the "better" scenario which may occur given the projected trends in health-related advancements. But they also shed light on a potentially "worse" scenario triggered due to the lack of policy action. Here, more than half of all nations could face lower life expectancies.

"Inequalities will continue to be large. The gap between the ‘better’ and ‘worse’ scenarios will narrow but will still be significant," Murray said. "In a substantial number of countries, too many people will continue earning relatively low incomes, remain poorly educated, and die prematurely. But nations could make faster progress by helping people tackle the major risks, especially smoking and poor diet."