What is the difference between life expectancy and healthy life expectancy?

The average number of years lived in poor health is the average life expectancy minus the average number of years lived in good health (healthy life expectancy). The following recommendations should be considered to promote healthy life expectancy as an important outcome measure at the national, state, community and health care system levels. Healthy life expectancy (HLE) is a measure of population health that combines length and quality of life in a single measure. While measuring health status is not as common as measuring life expectancy, a small population size is conceptually less problematic because information on health status, unlike mortality data, is potentially available to all members of the population.

With the average life expectancy in the United States currently hovering around 79 years, the age at which most Americans can expect to live is still forty-four years younger than human life expectancy. It is a valuable independent measure of the population's health and is also expressed as a percentage of overall life expectancy (LE). While this definition of life expectancy may seem simple enough, it is often confused with other common concepts in the study of aging, life, and death of living organisms. Health expectations can be created, and have been created, by adjusting life expectancy through a variety of different health measures, such as disease status, disability, and self-perception of health.

A person's life expectancy may be different from yours and may even change over time. Many of the measures and methods for calculating HLE are similar in all countries, but important differences persist. Healthy life expectancy (HLE) is the expected number of remaining years of life in good health starting at a given age, usually at birth or at sixty-five years of age, assuming current mortality and morbidity rates. For example, a person's life expectancy is affected by personal factors such as family history, environment, diet, and even age and sex.

In addition, the United States should continue to participate in international initiatives, such as the EU working group on health expectations (Robine and Jagger 200), to harmonize the HLE measures used in the United States with those used in other countries and thus facilitate international comparisons. Even so, in many countries, life expectancy has become a standard subnational measure of health system performance. In 2000, the difference in life expectancy between the lowest and highest quintiles of deprivation in Scotland was 4.6 years, but the gap in HLE between the lowest and highest quintiles was almost three times greater. A major health policy concern in many countries is the extent to which the improvement in quality of life keeps pace with the increase in life expectancy.

This number represents the range in years of life expectancy along the social gradient, from the most disadvantaged to the least disadvantaged.

Christine Febles
Christine Febles

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