Overcoming pitfalls of rising life expectancy  

Helal Uddin Ahmed     | Published: July 06, 2018 22:09:07 | Updated: July 06, 2018 22:16:41

The latest figures revealed by Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) show that average life expectancy in Bangladesh has increased by four months during 2017 compared to the previous year. The average life expectancy was 71.6 years, which rose to 72 years in 2017. This is higher than the global average of 70.5 years, and only the Maldives and Sri Lanka are ahead of Bangladesh in the South Asian region. The expectancy for males rose to 70.6 years from 70.3, while that for females rose to 73.5 from 72.9 years. In fact, the average life expectancy in Bangladesh has jumped by almost 25 years since the country achieved independence in 1971.

Now, what factors are responsible for this upward trend in life expectancy and what is its implication for society at large?

According to demographic experts, the factors contributing to this rise include decline in maternal and child mortality rate; better educational attainment and financial affluence; reduction in the prevalence of contagious diseases, and advances in disaster management. They opine that the reduction in child mortality rates made the principal contribution to increase in the average life expectancy of Bangladeshi people. BBS surveys show that whereas infant mortality rate per thousand was 56 in 2001, it came down to 24 in 2017. In case of under-5 children, the rate came down to 31 in 2017 from 82 per thousand in 2001. Child mortality at birth also declined from 4.1 per thousand in 2001 to 1.8 per thousand in 2017. Overall improvements in the healthcare sector of Bangladesh including wider immunisation coverage resulted in this reduction.

Decrease in maternal mortality rate has been identified as another important factor contributing towards enhanced life expectancy. This rate during child-birth was 6.48 per thousand in 1986, which came down to 1.72 in 2017.

Educational attainment also influences the average life expectancy, as people become more conscious about their health and safety after exposure to education. Literacy rate among children rose to 72.3 per cent in 2017, which was only 52.1 per cent in 2005. It shows that the literacy rate has increased by an astounding 39 per cent within a period of mere 13 years. On the other hand, the literacy rate among the 15-years-plus age-group jumped to 72.9 per cent from 53.5 per cent in 2005.

Economic affluence also boosts average life expectancy. People's purchasing power is constantly on the rise in Bangladesh. Demographers opine that people who come out of the poverty trap pay more attention to their health and nutrition. Their immunisation and resistance against diseases also rise when they eat nutritious food. Bangladesh has achieved notable progress in economic well-being during the previous 13 years, as evident from different indicators. Only 19.2 per cent people were considered to be economically affluent in 2005. This percentage more than doubled by 2017 and touched the 39 per cent mark. The proportions of poor and hardcore poor in the country also declined significantly during the same period.

Infectious diseases recorded a downward trend in Bangladesh alongside improvements in overall economy and healthcare. These have directly impacted on life expectancy. For example, epidemics of the past like diarrhoea and cholera are now under control due to both preventive and curative measures. Side by side with advances in healthcare, the tendency among people to seek institutional care for medical treatment has also risen. All these have contributed to a rise in life expectancy.

The rate of sudden deaths like those in road accidents has remained negligible compared to child-births. These sudden accidental deaths are having little effect on life expectancy, as child mortality rate has declined and birth rate has remained almost unchanged.

In addition, disaster management has notably improved in Bangladesh. Deaths due to natural calamities have decreased significantly because of improvements in preparedness, communication and technology.

The increased involvement of women with jobs outside homes has also been identified by experts as a contributing factor in enhancing the proportion of economically affluent people. This in turn has positively impacted on the rise in average life expectancy.

Now let us come to the second question: What is the implication of this rise in life expectancy for society in general. Enhanced life expectancy is no doubt a sign of burgeoning affluence of our people. But the number of aged people is also rising along with this. Now the question is, what arrangements have we made for ensuring a dignified life for these people in the twilight period of their lives? Have we put in place adequate mechanisms and social safety nets for protecting this aged and vulnerable population? As far as old age allowance scheme of the government is concerned, that appears to be too little for too few.

The concept of joint families is now breaking down in all spheres of our society. Children are opting for separate families after growing up. As they start careers of their own, their old parents gradually become lonely and often insolvent. Elders in our society have traditionally preferred to live with their offspring irrespective of their state of wealth. They expect care from their children during old age. But that hope is constantly fading. The new generation is also gradually losing the capacity to grasp and understand the sentiments and emotions of their elders. Not only do many neglect their aged parents, there are even stories of physical tortures that occasionally get published in the media.

The government has recently enacted the Maintenance of Parents Act, 2013. Under this law, the defaulting offspring may be fined or even imprisoned. But there has not been much publicity about it. Besides, laws would not be sufficient to protect the elderly unless there is a change in societal attitude. What is needed most is inculcation of a healthy attitude towards the elders. We need to groom and gear our society towards that humanistic and moral high-ground. Otherwise, what is the use of rising income and higher life expectancy?   


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