The trend in life expectancy

The trend in life expectancy

France Meslé et Jacques Vallin

The increase in life expectancy prompts us to investigate the mechanisms underlying the decrease in mortality, especially at the most advanced ages. In the 1960s, trends in life expectancy at birth began to diverge strongly between industrial countries. The mechanisms of those divergences can only be understood through a close analysis of the trends in age- and cause-specific mortality.

Precise knowledge of changing causes of death is an essential preliminary to any attempts to explain long-term mortality trends and exceptional mortality crises. Improved knowledge of the laws of mortality at very old ages will also clarify trends in the population structure, including at the peak of the age pyramid. People aged over 90, of whom there are currently 500,000 in France, are expected to number nearly 3.5 million by 2050. Given high future demand for specialized medical and social services for this population, it is becoming crucial to generate better estimates of the number of very old people in order to anticipate needs more effectively.

French life tables

Any analysis of mortality needs to be based on reliable estimates of age-specific mortality rates. In France, the complete annual life tables already published by INED for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries must be regularly updated. A special effort must be made to gather and validate the information on survival beyond 100 and even 110.

The 2001 publication by France Meslé and Jacques Vallin in the Données statistiques series summarises the historical reconstruction research that has made it possible to complete annual period and cohort life tables from 1806 to 1997, including a breakdown of the long-term mortality trend in France.

The tables, frequently used both inside and outside INED, need to be continuously updated. We have used this longitudinal series of life tables by sex and age to develop hypotheses about the mortality trend for INSEE’s projections. The series is useful for studying the trend of mortality in France and is a benchmark for use in comparative studies. We have compared trends in France and Japan with the less favourable trends in the United States and the Netherlands, particularly among elderly women. In the next few years, in addition to maintaining the database by regularly updating and enhancing the content, we will continue to use it to monitor mortality by sex and age especially at the oldest ages.

Life tables in other countries

Any international comparison begins with data collection and formatting. France Meslé and Jacques Vallin are working on a database of existing life tables in developed countries. The base is still incomplete for some countries and in any case needs to be continuously updated.

INED is working with the data laboratory of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) and the Department of Demography at the University of California (Berkeley) to create a public-access web-based database: the Human Life-Table Database ( The database contains PDF copies of officially published life tables and downloadable data files with, for each life table, a standardized calculation of the seven conventional functions based on two functions from the published table. The online database, which currently covers about 50 countries, consists mainly of data for the twentieth century, with some data for the nineteenth century. It is constantly updated with new data.

Along with the Human Mortality Database and the Kannisto Database, the Human Life-Table Database is useful for the research project on maximum life expectancy. By combining the lowest risks of mortality by age observed at a given time in the most advanced countries, we can gain an idea of the potential life expectancy of a population enjoying such minimum risks. Life expectancy combining the lowest mortality rates in 1950 was exceeded by most of the countries included in the study in fewer than 25 years. The lowest mortality rate in 1975 is being exceeded today. To reflect variations in mortality within countries, a similar exercise combining the lowest mortality rates will be applied to the states of the United States.

Some references:

Jasilionis Domantas, Meslé France, Shkolnikov Vladimir M., Vallin Jacques, 2011, « Recent life expectancy divergence in Baltic countries », European Journal of Population, 27(4), p. 403-431

Meslé France, Vallin Jacques. 2011. Historical trends in mortality. In: Rogers Richard G., Crimmins Eileen M. (ed.), International Handbook of Adult Mortality. Dordrecht Heidelberg London New York, Springer, p. 9-47

Prioux France, Barbieri Magali, 2012, « L'évolution démographique récente en France : une mortalité relativement faible aux grands âges », Population-F, 67(4), p. 597-656

Vallin Jacques et Meslé France, 2001. - Tables de mortalité françaises pour les XIXe et XXe siècles et projections pour le XXIe. - Paris, INED, 102 p. + CD-rom p. (Données statistiques, n° 4-2001)

Vallin Jacques, Meslé France. 2008a. Les plus faibles mortalités : un prédicteur des progrès à venir ? Population-F, 63 (4), p. 647-682