Human beings are living longer than ever before. Take the Indian case. In 1960, the life expectancy at birth was at 41.2 years. This has since improved to 68 years in 2014, as per data from the World Bank.
In fact, the human life expectancy is expected to go up further in the years to come. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in Homo Deus—A Brief History of Tomorrow: “The breakneck development of fields such as genetic engineering, regenerative medicine and nanotechnology fosters ever more optimistic prophecies. Some experts believe that humans will overcome death by 2200, others say 2100. Kurzweil and de Grey are even more sanguine. They maintain that anyone possessing a healthy body and a healthy bank account in 2050 will have serious shot at cheating death a decade at a time.”
This will have a huge impact on human society and the way it’s currently structured. As Harari writes: “Today, people still expect to be married ‘till death us do part’, and much of life revolves around having and raising children. Now try to imagine a person with a lifespan of 150 years. Getting married at forty, she still has 110 years to go. Will it be realistic to expect her marriage to last 110 years…. Bearing two children in her forties, she will, by the time she is 120, have only a distant memory of the years she spend raising them—a rather minor episode in her long life.”
Professional careers will also change in comparison to the way they are now. Currently, people study and specialise in their teens and early twenties, and then work until their retirement age. If they live up to 150 years, they will have to reinvent themselves and develop new specialisations as they go along.
So, all this does make one wonder as to what happened in the 1960s, when the life expectancy was a little over 40 years? Did that mean there weren’t many fifty, sixty and seventy year olds, going around? And now that the life expectancy is at 68, there are many more sixty and seventy year olds, going around.
As Daniel Levitin writes in A Field Guide to Lies and Statistics: “In fact, people did live that long—it’s just that infant and childhood mortality was so high that it skewed the average. If you could make it past twenty, you could live a long life back then. Indeed, in 1850 a fifty-year-old white female could expect to live to be 73.5, and a sixty-year-old could expect to be seventy seven.”
Hence, even in the India of the 1960s when the life expectancy was a little over 40 years, people were living well into their sixties and seventies. So why was the life expectancy so low? As Levitin writes: “There were many more infant deaths back then pulling down the average.”
What does this mean? In 1960, the infant mortality rate of India was 165. The infant mortality rate is essentially defined as the number of infants who die before reaching one year of age for every 1000 live births during the course of a given year. This meant that in 1960, on an average 165 out of the 1,000 babies born died before reaching one year of age.
This high infant mortality rate essentially pulled down the life expectancy number. Over the years, the infant mortality rate has come down. In 2015, the infant mortality rate had stood at 38. This means that for every 1,000 births on an average, 38 babies died before reaching one year of age. This improvement has largely been account of the availability of better healthcare facilities.
India still has some way to go on this front. In 2015, the world infant mortality rate was at 32. Our neighbours like Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh have managed to do much better than us on this front. Their infant mortality rates stand at 8, 29 and 31. Only Pakistan at 66, fairs worse than us.
The column originally appeared in Bangalore Mirror on January 25, 2017