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Life expectancy and infant mortality

New insights from the Research Division

The FRED Blog has discussed why residents of richer countries live longer lives, on average, than residents of poorer countries. In short, higher income levels allow access to higher-quality healthcare and overall better living conditions. Today, we highlight a positive trend on this topic: The average life expectancy in poor countries is rising and gradually catching up to the average life expectancy in rich countries.

The FRED graph above shows data from the World Bank about the average number of years a person born in each year is expected to live. Each line represents a set of countries grouped by level of income: high income in red, medium income in green, and low income in blue.

The graph shows that, in 1960, the resident of a poor country was expected to live an average of 41 years. By 2021, their life expectancy had increased to 62 years. That’s still short of the 80-year average a resident of a rich country born in 2021 is expected to live, but proportionally closer than the gap recorded more than half a century ago. And the reason for that is declining infant mortality in poor countries.

B. Ravikumar and Amy Smaldone at the St. Louis Fed argue that larger numbers of newborns surviving to at least age 1 raise the average count of years individuals are expected to live. In other words, lower infant mortality rates in poor countries are driving their higher life expectancy rates. These researchers prove their point by presenting a counterfactual argument: If their argument were wrong, the life expectancy data shown in the above FRED graph would look very different.

For more about this and other research, visit the website of the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, which offers an array of economic analysis and expertise provided by our staff.

How this graph was created: Search FRED for “Life Expectancy at Birth, Total for Low Income Countries.” Next, click the “Edit Graph” button and select the “Add Line” tab to search for and add “Life Expectancy at Birth, Total for High Income Countries.” Repeat the last step to add “Life Expectancy at Birth, Total for Middle Income Countries.”

Suggested by Diego Mendez-Carbajo.

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