Story: Death rates and life expectancy

Non-Māori female death rates and life expectancy, 1876–2013

The top graph shows non-Māori female deaths by age group between 1876 and 2006. Women dying at aged 75 and over were always the single largest group by age of death, but the proportion increased significantly as life expectancy increased, and living standards and health improved – fewer people died at young ages. The percentage of deaths in childhood declined the most, closely followed by people aged 15–44. Midlife women (45–64) exhibited similar, though less dramatic, consistent downward trends, while the percentage of deaths of 65–74-year-old women dropped from the mid-20th century. Deaths in the graph are based on the life-table function d(x) – the number of any cohort dying at a given age group, x.

The bottom graph shows non-Māori female life expectancy at birth and 20 years (how many more years a female can expect to live at each of these ages) between 1876 and 2013. The increasing gap between the lines for life expectancy at birth and age 20 illustrates the improvement in infant health over time. As infant mortality rates dropped and the chances of surviving childhood improved, the expected age of death for people at birth got closer to the expected age of death for those in young adulthood. Pākehā women had high life expectancy by world standards in the 19th century, and this continued into the 20th and 21st centuries.

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Sources: Ian Pool and Jit Cheung, ‘A cohort history of mortality in New Zealand.’ New Zealand Population Review 29, no. 2 (2003), 107–38; Ian Pool and Jit Cheung, ‘Why were New Zealand levels of life-expectation so high at the dawn of the twentieth century?’ Genus 61, no. 2 (2005), 9–33; Statistics New Zealand

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How to cite this page:

Ian Pool, 'Death rates and life expectancy - Pākehā epidemiological transition', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 August 2022)

Story by Ian Pool, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 14 Mar 2019