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EDITORIAL: Greater longevity, for some

LIFE expectancy, like many other measures of population health, is an academic concept.
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Statisticians and actuaries can say with great precision how long a man or woman born in a certain year might expect to live, on average. But while that information is interesting, it has little relevance to individuals.

The purpose of these estimates of longevity is to guide those who have to set policy and plan for future services.

With that in mind, Australian governments are being advised, again, that citizens are living longer.

For the first time, the life expectancy of Australian males has passed 80 years, slowly closing the lead enjoyed by females, who passed that point some years ago.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian males born in 2013 will now live 80.1 years on average, and females born in the same year will live an average of 84.3 years.

This is a reflection of Australia’s high standard of living and good health system, and it places the country with a small group of nations – Switzerland, Japan and Iceland – where both men and women can expect to live past 80.

Some will find cause for celebration in this interesting fact, but others will raise the oft-cited aspect of the cost of aged care and medical services for the very elderly. While many of the people who live longer do so in relatively good health, the issues of quality of life and cost of care are never far from the minds of politicians and bureaucrats.

What should stand out most in the longevity statistics is the fact that life expectancy is unevenly distributed.

Indigenous Australians typically lag a long way behind, and all residents of remote, rural and regional Australia pay a penalty in life expectancy terms for their non-urban addresses.

This is at least partly because of the phenomenon of ‘‘inverse care’’ – under which the best care and services are provided to those who need them least.

Other reasons are harder to pin down. The traditional poor showing of the Hunter’s Coalfields district on many measures of population health, for example, has been variously blamed on genetics, obesity linked to poor diet and lack of exercise and a range of socio-economic factors. It is, therefore, no surprise that the Coalfields once again rates poorly in the average life expectancy stakes.

Given that life expectancy figures are supposed to inform the decisions of policymakers, it may seem surprising that constant reminders of geographical inequities in longevity don’t seem to prompt much political action.

That, perhaps, may be in part yet another result of a skewed electoral system that delivers gold-plated services to areas with the most votes and neglects those with the fewest.

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