Main Factors: Life Expectancy at Birth
Muslims are living much longer than they did just a generation ago. The average life expectancy at birth in Muslim-majority countries, which was 62 years in the five-year period 1990-95, is estimated to be 68 years in 2010-15.9 By 2030-35, life expectancy at birth in Muslim-majority countries is projected to reach 73 years, slightly surpassing life expectancy in other (non-Muslim-majority) developing countries. This is another reason for the growth of the global Muslim population in both absolute and relative terms.
In more-developed countries, people tend to live considerably longer than in less-developed countries. In 2010-15, the average life expectancy in the world’s more-developed countries is estimated by the United Nations Population Division to be a full decade longer than in developing countries (78 years vs. 68 years). But life expectancy is rising in the developing world – including in countries with Muslim majorities – albeit from a lower base.
Between 1990-95 and 2010-15, the average gain in life expectancy in more-developed countries is estimated at four years (from 74 to 78). In less-developed countries where Muslims are in the minority, the gain is estimated to be five years (from 63 to 68). In Muslim-majority countries, it is estimated at seven years (from 62 to 68), when calculated from unrounded numbers.
A similar pattern is projected in the decades to come. Life expectancy is projected to rise by three years in more-developed countries (from 78 to 81), by four years in less-developed countries that do not have Muslim majorities (from 68 to 72) and by four years (when calculated from unrounded numbers) in Muslim-majority countries (from 68 to 73). The differences in the rate of improvement are small; the key point is that life expectancy at birth is rising across the board.
Behind the gains in longevity are numerous factors, including better health care, improved nutrition, rising incomes and infrastructure development. One measure of health care quality, for example, is the percentage of births attended by skilled health professionals. This indicator has improved dramatically in Muslim-majority countries, rising from an average of about 47% of all births in the 1990s to roughly 63% of all births in 2000 to 2008, a 16-percentage-point gain, according to the Pew Forum’s analysis of data from the World Health Organization. In developing countries where Muslims are in the minority, by contrast, the percentage of births attended by skilled health professionals rose by just five percentage points during this period, from about 68% in the 1990s to almost 73% in 2000-08. And, statistically speaking, virtually no improvement was possible in more-developed nations, where 99% of births already were attended by skilled health professionals in the 1990s.
To see how infrastructure development contributes to rising life expectancy in Muslim-majority countries, one might look, for example, at access to clean drinking water, which is less likely to carry diseases. Muslim-majority countries with better access to improved (i.e., clean) drinking water have longer life expectancies. For instance, the average life expectancy in the six countries whose residents have the most access to improved drinking water is more than 70 years, compared with less than 55 years in the five Muslim-majority countries where access to clean drinking water is least common.
Improved health care, better access to clean drinking water and many other gains in infrastructure development, living standards and nutrition have resulted in sharp declines in infant mortality rates in developing countries in general and Muslim-majority countries in particular. The decline in infant mortality, in turn, is one of the main factors driving up life expectancy at birth.
Between 1990-95 and 2010-15, the number of infant deaths per 1,000 live births is projected to drop by about 31 in Muslim-majority countries, by almost 17 in other less-developed countries and by almost five in more-developed countries. By 2020-25, Muslim-majority countries are expected to close the remaining gap and have infant mortality rates no higher than in non- Muslim-majority developing countries.
Yet, despite such dramatic improvements, there is enormous variation among Muslim-majority countries in both infant mortality rates and life expectancy at birth. In Afghanistan, for example, the infant mortality rate is 147 deaths per 1,000 live births – the highest in the world and nearly four times the global average of 33 per 1,000, according to U.N. figures – while average life expectancy at birth is just 45 years. By contrast, infant mortality rates in Brunei, Mayotte, Bahrain, Malaysia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates are about the same as those found in more-developed nations, and average life expectancy at birth is 75 years or more.
Declining infant mortality rates and increased life expectancies mean that Muslim-majority countries will have more children surviving into adulthood as well as growing numbers of elderly people in the next two decades, as discussed in the Age Structure section.
9 Life expectancy at birth is the average number of years a newborn would be expected to live if health and living conditions at the time of his/her birth remained the same throughout his/her life. (return to text)