Mortality has fallen since 1950, but for whom?

Mortality fell considerably in the 20th century in western countries, but the decrease was neither regular nor continuous. Demographers are working to understand the main factors behind these decreases and their interruptions, notably by distinguishing between the “period” and “cohort” factors related to differences between successive generations. The similarity in male mortality trends since 1950 in the 30 countries studied (on several continents) is striking, with a major trend shift occurring in the late 1960s or early 1970s. The turning point , marking the resumption or acceleration of the mortality decline for all ages over 40, was observed in 1968 in the USA and Switzerland, 1971 in Spain and Iceland, and 1974 in France and New Zealand. But it occurred later in Ireland, for example (1985), while most countries of the former Soviet Union have remained on the margins of progress.  

The trend was not the same for men and women. Female mortality has fallen continuously and regularly since 1950 with practically no interruptions. In contrast, male cardiovascular mortality, much higher than that of women, fell sharply in most western countries starting in 1970. Improved medical knowledge of these pathologies had two consequences: the preventive measures and treatments developed in this period either warded off such diseases or made them less life-threatening. Campaigns on the health risks of smoking changed the behaviour of men. The greatest difference between women and men is in smoking-related cancers, as women started smoking later and, unlike men, have yet to substantially moderate their tobacco consumption.

Source: Nadine Ouellette, Magali Barbieri, Wilmoth John R., “Period-based mortality change: Turning points in trends since 1950”, Population and Development Review, Vol. 40 (1), 2014.

Contact: Magali Barbieri

Online: February 2017