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Life Expectancy in Nigeria

By Prof. Dike Kalu, Vanguard


August 14, 2006

Select this sentence to paste over the article. Check that the article is justified by using "Preview".IN July 2006, it was reported that President Olusegun Obasanjo hosted a presidential retreat on life expectancy in the country. The subject of life expectancy may at first appear esoteric to many Nigerians, but on careful examination it is easy to see that we should all be concerned about how long the “average” Nigerian lives.

According to the president, “The issue of how long, on average, a citizen can expect to live on this earth has implications for a whole range of activities that it can be described as the hub of national planning and success”. Unfortunately, the life expectancy of Nigerians, which is only in the fifties, lags seriously behind that of people in developed countries, which in some is as high as 80 years. In fact in 2000, the World Health Organization reported that Japan had the highest average disability adjusted or healthy life expectancy of 745 years compared 38.3 years for Nigerians (World Health Report 2000). It is therefore necessary for the general public to be better informed about the subject of life expectancy.

Data from all over the world indicate that human maximum lifespan potential or the maximum length of life that human beings can potentially attain is fixed at about 100 years. This is as true of Americans as it is of the British, French, Swedes, Japanese, Russians, Nigerians or any other nationality on this planet. Although it is inherent in all human beings to be able to live to about 100 years, only a very small number of people in any society reach this fixed maximum lifespan potential. This is because human beings invariably die prematurely, as a result of diseases, shootings, accidents or malnutrition. The more the incidence and prevalence of accidents and fatal diseases in a region the less the likelihood that inhabitants of that region will live out their biologically endowed fixed maximum lifespan potential.

Why is lifespan fixed at about 100 years? Although biologists do not know for sure, what appears certain is that lifespan is somehow genetically predetermined just as the length of human pregnancy is genetically fixed at about nine months, and the growth and maturation of a child is predetermined and always follow a predictable time scale. The greatest support for genetic predetermination of lifespan comes from studying the lifespan of other species of animals. Each species of animals is found to have a finite lifespan that is unique to that species. For example, in a protected environment such as the zoo or laboratory, a rat lives for a maximum of about three years, a horse 46 years, an ape 50 years and, as we already stated, human beings have a maximum lifespan potential of about 100 years. The species differences in lifespan are in line with the operation of genetic predetermination.

In contrast to the fixed lifespan potential for humans, life expectancy or the actual number of years that an individual can hope to attain at birth is not fixed. It varies from country to country and has been increasing over the centuries. For instance, life expectancy in America has increased progressively from about 30 years in 1700 to about 78 years in 2003. In other words, a child born in America in could expect to live to about 78 years of age. In contrast, in many developing countries today life expectancy is much less. For instance in Nigeria it is in the fifties as previously mentioned. Why is this so? In the wild, animals die off long before they attain their maximum lifespan potential and only very few live until old age as a result of their environment. Improving and removing risk factors from their environment markedly increases the actual length of life that they can attain.

The same is true of humans. In western societies most people live out their maximum lifespan potential with little infirmity and they die mostly of old age. There is a small number of inevitable deaths from infant mortality due to the birth of defective and premature babies. Some die from the persistence in the population of a small number of deaths due to accidents and chronic diseases. Over the years the initial marked decrease in survival gets smaller and smaller reflecting a progressive decrease in infant mortality. Survivabilty then remains high for a long time. High longevity is common to the advanced nations of the world and it is the ultimate long-term goal of any national health programme.

There are no similar survival data for Nigerians as for the advanced nations. If we make some assumptions based on the entire state of the country we can predict that the Nigerian society is characterized by the prevalence of random, premature and preventable deaths. 

No Nigerian is immune from the agony of the premature death of friends or relatives who, if they lived in the advanced nations, would be considered to be only in their prime. Nigeria can prevent this wastage of human life by a judicious deployment of existing medical science and technology.

In the minds of most Nigerians good health care evokes a vision of big hospitals with sophisticated instruments and gadgets, a liberal supply of diverse medicines for all ailments and a retinue of specialist doctors and nurses in attendance, and yet, the medical know-how that is most likely to have the greatest impact on national health in Nigeriahas nothing to do with expensive sophisticated western medical technology that is not available in Nigeria.

All the available studies indicate that in the developed nations the transition from a survival curve characterized by premature deaths to the rectangular survival curve that is characterized by increased longevity was not the result of heroic medical, technological interventions. Rather the increase in life expectancy in the western nations resulted from quite unexpected simple measures such as improved standards of hygiene, sanitary engineering, better nutrition, safe drinking water, and steps to prevent infectious diseases.
The level of scientific understanding called for in this simple preventive medicine is no more arduous than that expected of beginning students in Nigerian medical and nursing schools. The science and the technologies involved have been public knowledge for decades and are not beyond the capability of Nigeria.

Effective implementation of these preventive public health measures in Nigeria are obligatory for the elimination of the needless premature deaths that will pave the way to the elongation of the life expectancy of Nigerians. The only barriers to implementing the required public health measures are those erected by us.

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