Policy ForumDemography and Inequality

The case for monitoring life-span inequality

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Science  30 Nov 2018:
Vol. 362, Issue 6418, pp. 1002-1004
DOI: 10.1126/science.aau5811

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Inequality in length of life is the most fundamental of all inequalities; every other type of inequality is conditional upon being alive. As has long been recognized in studies of economic inequality, we can compare populations based on per capita gross national income, but there is a pressing need to further examine how income varies within populations via Gini coefficients and percentile-based metrics. Mortality inequalities should be approached in the same way. Human population health is generally monitored by average mortality levels, typically in terms of life expectancies, which belie substantial variation in length of life. Variation in ages at death, captured by a metric of life-span variation, should be used to supplement measures of average longevity when comparing or monitoring societies and population subgroups (1). Although life-span variation has historically been strongly inversely correlated with life expectancy (2, 3), we are beginning to see this relationship reversed, resulting in positive correlation in some countries or subnational populations. Often these changes reflect midlife mortality crises with roots in stratified education and wealth. We discuss these measures and trends and how they can have profound implications for how individuals might plan and live their lives, and for how societies might organize and manage health care, insurance, pensions, and other social policies and programs.