Life expectancy in less developed countries: socioeconomic development or public health?

J Biosoc Sci. 1989 Apr;21(2):245-52. doi: 10.1017/s0021932000017934.


Various studies have enquired into the influence of socioeconomic development or public health measures on life expectancies in less developed countries. Analysis of the effect of these two groups of factors upon life expectancy, using data for 95 less developed countries, indicates that mortality is primarily influenced by such socioeconomic development measures as urbanization, industrialization, and education, and secondarily by such public health measures as access to safe water, physicians, and adequate nutrition.

PIP: Using data collected from 5 major sources on life expectancy and the variables affecting it for 95 less developed countries (LDCs), the researchers examine life expectancies against some of Goldscheider's indicators of modernization: 1) percentage of population living in urban areas, 2) percentage of population engaged in agriculture, 3) percentage of population that is literate, 4) percentage of population with access to safe water, 5) mean daily caloric intake per head, and 6) population per physician. Results show that percentage of population in agriculture is the most highly correlated variable with life expectancy, followed by literacy, and safe water. Using standard multiple regression, the authors found that altogether, those variables explain 79% of the variation in life expectancy. The variables contributing the most to the variance in life expectancy are 2 of the socioeconomic variables--literacy and percentage of population in agriculture, suggesting that socioeconomic conditions have a greater influence on life expectancy than health conditions. Using a socioeconomic index (composed of urban, literacy, and industries other than agriculture) and a health conditions index (composed of safe water, calorie intake, and number of physicians per 100,000 population), clearly showed the importance of socioeconomic development over health variables. Urbanization is less influential with regard to life expectancy than was anticipated, perhaps because of unhealthy conditions in LDC cities. More emphasis should be placed upon education, since increasing literacy may eliminate more factors associated with malnutrition and disease than further importation of public health measures.

MeSH terms

  • Africa
  • Asia
  • Developing Countries*
  • Humans
  • Industry*
  • Life Expectancy*
  • Public Health*
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • South America