Life Expectancy: Frequently Used, but Hardly Understood


Period life expectancy is one of the most used summary indicators for the overall health of a population. Its levels and trends direct health policies, and researchers try to identify the determining risk factors to assess and forecast future developments. The use of period life expectancy is often based on the assumption that it directly reflects the mortality conditions of a certain year. Accordingly, the explanation for changes in life expectancy are typically sought in factors that have an immediate impact on current mortality conditions. It is frequently overlooked, however, that this indicator can also be affected by at least three kinds of effects, in particular in the situation of short-term fluctuations: cohort effects, heterogeneity effects, and tempo effects. We demonstrate their possible impact with the example of the almost Europe-wide decrease in life expectancy in 2015, which caused a series of reports about an upsurge of a health crisis, and we show that the consideration of these effects can lead to different conclusions. Therefore, we want to raise an awareness concerning the sensitivity of life expectancy to sudden changes and the menaces a misled interpretation of this indicator can cause.

Gerontology:66, 95–104.