Aboriginal life expectancy – how big is the gap?

With the controversial Stronger Futures laws passing the Senate in the early hours this morning, it seems a good time to write about Aboriginal life expectancy. Aboriginal people have a much lower life expectancy than non Aboriginal people in Australia. At birth Aboriginal men can expect to live about 12 years less than non Aboriginal men (to age 67), and Aboriginal women can expect to about live 10 years less than non Aboriginal women (to age 73). While in the Northern Territory, Aboriginal men and women can expect to live to the age of 61 and 69 respectively.

So what is causing the reduction? If you look at the history of life expectancy improvements, you might expect it to be infant mortality. That’s one of the big improvements that has happened even in my father’s lifetime. Life expectancy is the average age a particular population (of say newborns) can expect to live to. Infant mortality differentials can make an enormous difference to life expectancy, because in most populations, infant mortality rate (death rate before the age of 1) is vastly higher than the mortality rate until people are in their mid 50s.

But with modern medicine, particularly hygiene, antibiotics, and improvements in ante-natal care, improvements in infant mortality are relatively straightforward. Although Aboriginal infant mortality is still around 50% higher than non Aboriginal infant mortality, mortality is worse at all ages, leading to life expectancy being substantially lower until Aboriginal people make it well into old age.

As always, if you wander around the ABS site long enough, you will find what you are looking for. In this case, the Experimental Life table for Aboriginal People, 2005-2007.

It shows that for Aboriginal people in Australia as a whole, the life expectancy at birth was substantially lower than the whole Australian population.  It seems likely that there are a whole lot of different causes of death contributing to the differences. The curves for the indigenous population seem pretty close to parallel, but significantly worse during the whole lifetime of an indigenous person.

Australia is number six in the world for life expectancy. Aboriginal people have a life expectancy roughly equivalent to those in Thailand, Guatemala and Honduras. And Aboriginal people from the Northern Territory can expect to live about as long as the populations of Senegal (men) or Tajikistan (women, who are relatively better).

We’ve got a fair way to go before we close the gap on Aboriginal mortality.