Wealth and Longevity

History teaches us that the wealth of a region and the longevity of its inhabitants go hand in hand. The societal and economic changes wrought across the 17th century in England, for example, show us that increased longevity leads to increased wealth, through more foresighted allocation of capital resources and the compounded effect of small gains, year after year. The converse is also true: increased wealth leads to increased longevity, a fact well illustrated by the passage of many Asian countries from undeveloped to developed in a short span of decades. Let us take the economic history of South Korea, for example:

South Korea is a developed country and had one of the world's fastest growing economies from the early 1960s to the late 1990s. Its rapid transformation into a wealthy and industrialized economy in this short time was termed the Miracle on the Han River. This growth surge was achieved through manufacturing oriented exports and a highly educated workforce. As of 2009, South Korea is the world's eighth largest exporter.

Across this same period of time, life expectancy in South Korea rose dramatically:

Objectives. We assessed life expectancy increases in the past several decades in South Korea by age and specific causes of death.

Methods. We applied Arriaga's decomposition method to life table data (1970-2005) and mortality statistics (1983-2005) to estimate age- and cause-specific contributions to changes in life expectancy.

Results. Reductions in infant mortality made the largest age-group contribution to the life expectancy increase. Reductions in cardiovascular diseases (particularly stroke and hypertensive diseases) contributed most to longer life expectancy between 1983 and 2005 (30% in males and 28% in females). Lower rates of stomach cancer, liver disease, tuberculosis, and external-cause mortality accounted for 30% of the male and 20% of the female increase in longevity. However, higher mortality from ischemic heart disease, lung and bronchial cancer, colorectal cancer, breast cancer, diabetes, and suicide offset gains by 10% in both genders.

Conclusions. Rapid increases in life expectancy in South Korea were mostly achieved by reductions in infant mortality and in diseases related to infections and blood pressure.

These changes in mortality are characteristic of economic growth in developed nations across the 20th century: more effective and more pervasive medical infrastructure naturally arises when people have more disposable income to pay for its services. Those services have a profound effect on mortality and incidence of disease in the young. They have an equally profound effect on levels of disease in adults. Suffering from chronic disease places a burden of damage upon the body, and life expectancy rises when that burden is evaded or prevented.

ResearchBlogging.orgYang S, Khang YH, Harper S, Davey Smith G, Leon DA, & Lynch J (2010). Understanding the Rapid Increase in Life Expectancy in South Korea. American journal of public health PMID: 20299661


Could it be that health and wealth correlate because they are both the results of some third thing, something cultural perhaps?

Posted by: Micha Elyi at March 24th, 2010 12:19 PM

Have the effects of the large amounts of deaths caused by the Korean War in the early 50's been accounted for?

Posted by: Tim at March 24th, 2010 1:52 PM

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