The top graph shows Māori female deaths by age group from 1886 to 2006. Child mortality was exceptionally high in the 19th and early 20th centuries, although the child death rate declined significantly over this period. From the 1930s the period in which the largest proportion of Māori females died changed from childhood to midlife and old age. As health improved over the course of the 20th century, more Māori women lived into older adulthood. 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 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 1886 and 2013. Life expectancy for Māori was low in the 19th century because of the impact of communicable diseases introduced by Pākehā. Child mortality was very high, as shown by the poor life expectancy at birth compared to life expectancy at 20 years in the early period – in 1886 it was only 25 at birth, whereas a 20-year-old could expect to live 31 more years and reach the age of 51.
Over time immunity to communicable diseases increased, which led to improvements in life expectancy at both ages. Health programmes aimed at Māori from the early 20th century, and the introduction of free health care in 1941, also had a positive impact. By the 1950s the expected age of death at birth and at 20 had drawn much closer, and by the 1970s the gap was only one to two years. Though Māori women’s life expectancy improved significantly in the second half of the 20th century, it remained lower than that of Pākehā women in the early 21st century.
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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