San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Long Live Costa Rica

You are only given one life and, though efforts might be made to prolong it, life ends in death. In the annals of history, there is one thing no man or woman has ever done, and that is to live forever.

The good news is that life is lasting longer in almost every country in the world.

In Costa Rica, for example, according to a recently released study by the National Statistics and Census Institute (INEC), the average life span in 2009 was 79.3 years, the highest level of life expectancy ever recorded in Costa Rica. And this increase in life expectancy was accompanied by the country’s lowest-ever infant mortality rate.

In 2009, 8.84 out of every 1,000 children born perished within their first year of life. Thus, according to INEC, Costa Rica has the lowest infant mortality rate in Latin America and is among the region’s leaders in life expectancy.

Not long ago, the situation was much different. In 1950, the infant mortality rate in Costa Rica was 93.8 children for every 1,000 births, while the average life lasted only 57.3 years.

Over the past 60 years, scientific and medical advances have helped prevent death and, thus, prolong life.

“The biggest success of the 20th century has been a huge decline in mortality everywhere,” said Hania Zlotnik, director of the population division at the United Nations. “From 1950 to today, every country has had a reduction in mortality. In the 1940s and 1950s, good antibiotics were discovered and people began to use them massively, including in very poor countries. As those interventions were scaled up, experts began to think that mortality was going to be totally controlled in the upcoming decades because people would no longer die from common communicable diseases.”

The ability to control such diseases – including polio, tuberculosis and hepatitis – with vaccinations has, in fact, been the primary driver in extending the average life span worldwide.

According to the U.N. World Population Prospects report, the world life expectancy in 1950 was 46.6 years, while the infant mortality rate was at 151.9 for every 1,000 births. Today, the average life expectancy worldwide is 67.7 years, with an infant mortality rate at 47.3 per 1,000 births.

But while immunizations and cures for the most common diseases have propelled life expectancy to new heights throughout the world, social factors also can contributeto the extension of one’s vitality.


Teaching Oneself How to Live


Costa Rica is often lauded for its high literacy rate (around 96 percent) and commitment to education. In a country with a population of 4.5 million, 56 universities and technical schools offer an education beyond the high school level.

Though education does not directly contribute to longevity, it is generally understood that higher education translates to better health decisions.

“If the level of education in a country is at a high level, it creates a culture of health that educates people to make better health decisions,” Dr. Ana Morice, vice minister of health, told The Tico Times. “In Costa Rica, health education begins at an early age andis taught through the high school level. The commitment to health is something that characterizes this country and we know that if we want to continue to have long life expectancy and a healthy nation, we have to defend it with education.”

Morice also alluded to the health care reform legislation passed this week in the United States. Morice said she believes the strength of the health of the Costa Rican population is rooted in the health care that is available to all citizens. Access to health care via the Social Security System (CAJA) was made available to all Costa Rican citizens in 1943.

Sex education also plays an important role in longevity.

African countries, particularly the sub-Saharan nations, have the world’s lowest life expectancies and highest infant mortalities. According to Zlotnik, this is a direct result of the spread of the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV.

“We got a shock when HIV, a communicable disease, appeared,” Zlotnik said. “Some of the countries that are highly affected by the HIV epidemic – instead of having a continuous decline in mortality (as in the rest of the world) – have seen increases in mortality due to HIV and AIDS.”

According to Avert, an international organization for HIV and AIDS Prevention, in 2007 Costa Rica recorded the fewest number of deaths due to HIV and AIDS, with less than 200 people dying due to the virus. Costa Rica and Belize reported the fewest HIV-and AIDS-related deaths in Central America.

“There are many efforts made towards sex education in Costa Rica,” Morice said. “As students learn more about the risks of sex, the numbers of sexually transmitted diseases and early pregnancies are decreased. This is why the numbers of sexually transmitted diseases are lower here than in many other countries”.


Women Outlive Men


In their nationwide study, INEC found that women in Costa Rica live an average of five years longer than do men. The life expectancy of women is 81.8 years, while that for men is 76.8 years. And this five-year differential is broadening, as it is everywhere else in the world. The worldwide average life expectancy for men is 65.4 years, and it stands at 69.8 years for women.

“Some of the reasons for the longer life expectancy for women are biological and, from her first year of birth, a woman’s health is usually better than that of a man,” Morice said. “Other reasons include mental and physical stress on the body, which tend to be higher for men. At the same time, some factors are environmental. We know that violence, homicides, suicides and car accidents are more frequent among men. Overall, women tend to take better care of themselves.”

Though women outlive men, the overall life expectancy of 79-plus years in Costa Rica is impressive, putting the country in the world’s upper echelon regarding longevity.

Of the many things the country does well, the continued push for better education, and better access to, and quality of, health care is adding to both the quality and length of life in Costa Rica.


Life expectancies

1. Japan – Overall 82.7; women 86.2; men 79

2. Hong Kong – Overall 82.2; women 85.1; men 79.4

3. Iceland – Overall 81.8; women 83.3; men 80.2

11. Canada – Overall 80.7; women 82.9; men 78.3

22. United Kingdom – Overall 79.4; women 81.6; men 77.2

30. Costa Rica (as of 2009) – Overall 79.3; women 81.8; men 76.8

34. U.S. – Overall 79.2; women 81.4; men 76.9

83. Nicaragua – Overall 72.9; women 76; men 69.9


Infant Mortality (deaths before age 1 per 1,000 births)

1. Iceland 2.9

2. Singapore 3.0

3. Japan 3.2

22. United Kingdom 4.8

23. Canada 4.8

33. U.S. 6.3

51. Costa Rica (as of 2009) 8.84

98. Nicaragua 21.5

Source: 2008 United Nations World Population Prospects

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