- British Columbia and Ontario finish with “A” grades on life expectancy. B.C. places behind only two of Canada’s international peers—Switzerland and Japan.
- The territories are at the bottom of the rankings, with life expectancy in Nunavut the lowest at 71.8 years.
- B.C. also has the highest life expectancy for those who reach 65, and B.C. residents spend a large portion of their lives in full health.
Putting life expectancy in context
An average person living during the time of the Roman Empire might have expected to live 25 years. At the turn of the 20th century, an individual had a life expectancy of 50 years. In 2011, the estimated average life expectancy in Canada and its peer countries was 81.3 years.
Life expectancy measures the average number of years a baby born today can be expected to live. It is widely regarded as an indicator of a country’s overall health. Life expectancy has increased dramatically for most people in the world today, except those living in AIDS-ravaged sub-Saharan Africa. Improvements in sanitation, nutrition, medicine, and medical technology have all helped increase life expectancy.
How do the provinces and territories rank relative to Canada’s international peers?
British Columbia and Ontario score “A” grades on life expectancy and place among the top five, along with the leading peer countries, Switzerland, Japan, and France. In 2011, life expectancy in B.C. was 82.2 years—only Switzerland (82.8 years) and Japan (82.7 years) have higher life expectancies.
With a life expectancy of 81.8 years in 2011, Quebec ranks just above the national average life expectancy of 81.5 years and scores a “B” grade. Overall, Canada gets a “B” with a life expectancy slightly higher than the peer-country average. Alberta and New Brunswick also get “B”s.
P.E.I. scores a “C” grade on life expectancy. Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Manitoba rank near the bottom of the pack but also manage to get “C” grades as a result of the low life expectancy in the worst-performing peer country, the United States. The average American born in 2011 will live for 78.7 years. Saskatchewan is the worst-ranking province and scores a “D” grade.
The territories all score “D-” grades for having lower life expectancies than the worst-performing peer country, the United States. In Nunavut, the life expectancy in 2011 was only 71.8 years.
How do the provinces and territories perform relative to each other?
B.C. and Ontario are the highest-ranked provinces and the only two “A” performers on life expectancy, while Manitoba and Saskatchewan are the lowest-ranking provinces. Life expectancy in B.C. is 2.6 years longer than in Saskatchewan. All three territories rank at the bottom of the pack.
Why is life expectancy in the territories so low?
Life expectancy in the territories is much lower than in the rest of Canada. In fact, at 71.8 years, life expectancy in Nunavut is more comparable to Ukraine than the rest of Canada.1 A child born today in Nunavut is expected to live about 10 years less than a child born in British Columbia.
Several factors could be responsible for the lower life expectancy in the territories. First, the territories do poorly on socio-economic indicators considered to be key determinants of health. For example, the territories have higher levels of long-term unemployment and lower proportions of high school and university graduates.2, 3 The territories also have some of the highest rates of smoking, obesity, and substance abuse in Canada. All of these are associated with poor health. In 2013, 19.3 per cent of the Canadian population aged 12 years or older smoked daily or occasionally—in Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut the smoking rates in 2013 were 25.9 per cent, 33.2 per cent, and 59 per cent, respectively.4
Suicide rates in the territories are among the highest in the nation, particularly in Nunavut, where the suicide rate was more than six times the national average in 2011.5
The remoteness of the territories may also contribute to the lower life expectancies. Outside of the cities, accidents and injuries in the territories can claim a lot more lives because the distance to care is often much greater than in the provinces. The northern regions of most provinces suffer the same issues related to remoteness; however, the provinces have much larger shares of their populations in the south, masking these issues.
What role does wealth play in life expectancy?
Economics plays a critical role in life expectancy. On average, people in high-income countries live 19 years longer than people in low-income countries.6 The average life expectancy in Canada and its peer countries—among the richest in the world—is 81.3 years. People in Africa live, on average, to age 58, while people in Southeast Asia live to age 67.7
Similarly, within a country, wealthier people generally have a longer lifespan than poorer people. Canada has notable regional discrepancies. Annual mortality rates are higher in the most rural areas (those with no commuters) than in urban areas, according to findings from the Canadian Institute for Health Information. "Areas with a higher life expectancy generally have higher incomes, higher levels of education, and higher levels of employment. Other factors associated with better health for a population include a more equitable distribution of income, better housing, a supportive social environment, and good opportunities for early childhood development."8
Given the poor socio-economic conditions prevalent among Aboriginal populations, these populations have a much lower life expectancy than the total Canadian population. “Studies have shown that Aboriginal people in Canada have life expectancies that are five or more years less than those of the total Canadian population.”9 Among the 10 provinces, the share of the population that is Aboriginal is highest in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, at 16.7 and 15.6 per cent, respectively. These ratios are even higher in the territories, where the Aboriginal population represents 23.1 per cent in Yukon, 51.9 per cent in N.W.T., and 86.3 per cent in Nunavut.10 Therefore, it is not surprising that life expectancies are lower in the territories and in these two provinces.
Do the rankings change for life expectancy at 65?
Life expectancy at 65 measures the average remaining years of life for a 65 year old, based on the current mortality rates. Generally, life expectancy increases as a person ages, such that the lifespan of a 65 year old is greater than the average life expectancy at birth would dictate.
The rankings don’t change much for life expectancy at age 65. France, Japan, and Switzerland remain the top-ranking peer countries, while B.C. and Ontario maintain their lead among the provinces and territories. B.C. and Ontario drop down to “B” grades for life expectancy at age 65 because top-ranking France does significantly better. A 65 year old in B.C. can expect to live another 20.8 years, while the life expectancy at 65 in France is 21.6 years. Saskatchewan ranks much higher on life expectancy at 65—in 2011, the average person at 65 was expected to live another 19.9 years (to almost 85 years), whereas average life expectancy at birth was 79.7 years. All the provinces do better than the U.S., except Newfoundland and Labrador, which matches the estimated 19.1 extra years of life for the average American aged 65. The territories again languish at the bottom of the rankings.
Is life expectancy the best indicator to describe the health dimension of quality of life?
The life expectancy indicator has sometimes been criticized as placing too much emphasis on quantity of life and not enough on quality of life. To address that issue, the life expectancy report card indicator is complemented by the premature mortality and self-reported health status indicators.
Another indicator that is often used to account for quality of life is health-adjusted life expectancy, or HALE. HALE is the average number of years a person can expect to live in good health.
Instead of considering all years of life as equal, as in the conventional life expectancy indicator, HALE weights years of life according to health status. HALE is calculated by subtracting from life expectancy the average number of years in ill-health weighted for severity of the health problem.
Quebecers born between 2005 and 2007 (the most recent years for which provincial HALE data are available) could expect to spend 88.2 per cent of their life in good health. The average life expectancy in Quebec between 2005 and 2007 was 80.7 years. This means that Quebec’s residents spend an average of 71.2 years in good health.
In B.C., the average person spends 87.4 per cent of his or her life in good health. However, given the higher average life expectancy in B.C., the average person in both Quebec and B.C. was expected to live to age 71 in full health. P.E.I. is the only other province that ranks above the Canadian average of 86.9 per cent of life in full health—though almost all remaining provinces come in at 86 per cent and above. The exception is Nova Scotia, where residents could expect to spend 85.4 per cent of their lives in full health. Given that life expectancy in Nova Scotia was 79.7 years between 2005 and 2007, the average person was expected to spend 68 years in good health. (HALE data are not available for the territories.)