Daily Archives: January 27, 2012

a second look at life expectancy: childbirth and bath tubs

In my previous post, I tried to unravel life expectancy curves. The comments on this post were fantastic (thank you, readers!). They were so good that I decided to share some of the readers’ information and reply to a request.

First, I was asked if the mortality rates follow a “bath tub” shape. If you have taken a course on reliability, you have seen hazard rates. Many processes and widgets have a “bath tub” curve, meaning that there is some break-in failure (this is what a warranty is for), there is an extended period of time with a low incidence of failure during a widget’s useful life, and then there is wear-out failure. People are like widgets in this regard. Below is the CDC’s recent mortality estimates for men and women as a function of age. Do to low infant mortality rates, there isn’t much of a tub there, but mortality does decrease for the first 10 years of life for girls and boys (using reliability terms, this is break-in failure). After the age of 10, the mortality curve for boys dramatically rises and diverges from the curve for girls.

bath tub mortality

The bathtub curve for mortality

Second, the link between women’s life expectancy and childbirth is quite real. The figure below from the Red Blog (courtesy of Hans Rosling) captures international life expectancy rates as a function of the number of children a country has, on average. Michael also points out that the growing life expectancy disparity between men and women reflects this: “As family sizes grow, life expectancies drop. It seems to me that the widening gender gap from 1920 onwards tends to support your notions about childbirth reducing female life expectancy.” Hans Rosling talks about this figure in the must-see video at the bottom of this post.

Smaller families = longer lives

David Smith found an entire article about life expectancies in England in 1550-1800. Life expectancies were between 35-40. The figure below is not differentiated between gender, but it is indeed fascinating. The article itself discusses childbirth quite a bit, although not so much on the relationship between childbirth and life expectancy. They note that lower life expectancies were caused by poverty and lack of nutrition, which in turn encouraged people to have fewer children.

Life expectancy in England

The following video of Hans Rosling talking about life expectancy over time is a real treat.


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