Human Life-Table Database

Introduction to the "Bibliography" by James C. Riley

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This compilation of more than 700 sources lists works by hundreds of scholars in reconstructing life expectancy in the past and the recent period. It identifies sources employed for two essays published in 2005, "Estimates of Regional and Global Life Expectancy, 1800-2000, " Population and Development Review 31 (3) and "The Timing and Pace of Health Transitions around the World," Population and Development Review 31 (4). Abstracts for these essays appear below.

Scholars may find this list useful as a starting point for research into the history of survivorship in individual countries. On that matter there is still much to be learned, especially for countries outside Western Europe. But my particular hope is that these sources, and others that may be added to this list, will stimulate work on the comparative history of survivorship and factors that advanced or retarded gains in life expectancy in groups of countries or among all countries. There is much yet to be learned about why so many countries still lag in life expectancy, and about why some subpopulations within high survival countries do not enjoy the same advantages in survival as more favored groups.

My initial goal in consulting these sources was to identify all the countries that could be considered to combine high life expectancy with low income levels, and to build a picture of life expectancy change over time in those countries. That work led me to study life expectancy gains in Jamaica, a country not previously considered to have combined good health and low income, and to write a book-length study of a dozen countries that share the experience of making rapid and impressive gains in life expectancy before becoming either middle or high-income lands (James C. Riley, Poverty and Life Expectancy: The Jamaica Paradox (Cambridge, 2005). A manuscript dealing with twelve countries is now under review).

The research was eased and simplified by two things. First, the late George Stolnitz, in cooperation with Indiana University librarians, had assembled a rich collection of material on mortality that was readily available to me. Second, electronic bibliographic tools simplify the search for books and essays. I am grateful for the cooperation of IU librarians in obtaining additional material not already in our collections.

Yet I have no doubt that this bibliography is incomplete. The directors of the Human Life-Table Database, who agreed to provide a home for this list, have consented also to let me make additions as readers alert me to sources that should be included. Please send suggestions to me at, or to me at this address: History Department, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405, USA.

A brief summary of each country's history of survivorship precedes the list of sources used to build that picture and to assemble the quantitative evidence behind the two essays mentioned above. These summary histories focus on identifying the period during which a country began its health transition, a term used here to describe persistent and sustained but not uninterrupted gains in life expectancy. Those beginning periods and the levels of life expectancy in them are summarized in Appendix 1 of "The Timing and Pace of Health Transitions around the World." The countries themselves have been grouped in five regions: Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, and Oceania.

Reconstructions of life expectancy often disagree with one another. The different methods that demographers have used sometimes produce conflicting results, the quality and quantity of statistical data available for examination varies, and expectations differ. Researchers working in roughly the period 1950-1975 apparently expected to find lower levels of life expectancy in the past and present than researchers working in more recent years. In deciding which life expectancy estimates to use, I have often taken more recent work to supersede earlier work. That approach biases estimates upward, especially for the years since about 1950. Since so many agencies provide estimates of life expectancy for the period since 1950, I concentrated my search for sources on the earlier period, and especially on the periods during which each country's health transition might have begun. I accepted and have used World Bank and UN estimates of life expectancy since 1950 for countries for which there is little reliable evidence, but I suspect that those estimates are often too high.

Sometimes it proved impossible to choose between two or more versions of the life expectancy history of a country. Those cases are mentioned in the brief summary histories of each country.

For countries for which quantitative evidence is limited, it is often difficult to make firm estimates of life expectancy or to specify the period when the health transition began. Readers will notice that I have often used an estimate above 30 years to suggest that gains in survival may have begun in an earlier period. That is, of course, a rough estimate; when made it assumes that a country belongs to the large group of pre health transition countries with comparatively low life expectancy, between 20 and 30 years, rather than to the small group of countries known to have had expectancies above 30 years for much of the pre transition era.

This list includes sources for the estimates that I did not adopt. Thus any researcher can test my conclusions and choices by going back over the same material I examined. I hope this bibliography will prove useful for that purpose, as a convenient place to begin research on the history of life expectancy, and as a stimulus to the comparative study of controling hazards to survival.


"Estimates of Regional and Global Life Expectancy, 1800-2000"

Historians and demographers have gone to considerable trouble to reconstruct life expectancy in the past in individual countries. This essay collects information from a large body of that work and links estimates for historical populations to those provided by the United Nations, the World Bank, and other sources for 1950-2001 to produce a picture of regional and global life expectancy at birth for certain years from 1800 to 2001.

"The Timing and Pace of Health Transitions around the World"

This essay assembles estimates from some 700 mostly national studies of survival in the past to create a broad picture of regional and global life expectancy gains across space and time, and to examine some implications of that picture. At the initiation of their health transitions most countries had a life expectancy between 25 and 35 years. Counties that began later made gains at a faster pace, which is well known. Those faster gains are usually associated with the dissemination of western medicine. But rapid gains occurred in the period 1920-1950, largely before the availability of antibiotics or the modern vaccines. Especially rapid gains came in the years immediately after World War II in countries where the leading causes of death were communicable diseases that could be managed with antibiotics as well as in countries where the leading causes of death were degenerative organ diseases. Both periods of rapid gain await satisfactory explanation.

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