Good health is one of the most important things to people and also brings many other benefits, including enhanced access to education and the job market, an increase in productivity and wealth, reduced health care costs, good social relations, and of course, a longer life. 

Life expectancy

Life expectancy is the most widely used measure of health, although it only takes into account the length of people’s life and not their quality of life. There have been remarkable gains in life expectancy over the past 50 years in OECD countries. On average, life expectancy at birth reaches 81 years across OECD countries, a gain of more than 11 years since 1960. Women live about five years longer than men, averaging 83.6 years versus 78.3 years for men. The OECD country with the highest life expectancy is Japan with an average life expectancy of 84 years. At the other end of the scale, life expectancy is the lowest in Mexico, at 75 years. Life expectancy in Brazil stands at 76 years, 73 years in the Russian Federation and 64 years in South Africa.

Recent OECD analysis suggests that health care spending growth has contributed to the improvement in life expectancy, but other determinants such as rising living standards, environmental improvements, lifestyle changes and education are also important drivers. Taken together, these explain much of the cross-country differences in life expectancy, as well as changes over time. Further progress in population health status and life expectancy can be achieved by putting greater emphasis on public health and disease prevention, especially among disadvantaged groups, and by improving the quality and performance of health care systems.

Chronic (non-communicable) diseases including cancer, cardiovascular diseases, chronic respiratory conditions and diabetes, are now the main causes of disability and death in OECD countries. Many of these diseases are preventable, since they are linked to modifiable lifestyles. People who do not smoke, drink alcohol in moderate quantities, are physically active, eat a balanced diet, and who are not overweight or obese have a much lower risk of early death than those who have unhealthy habits.

Self-reported health

Most OECD countries conduct regular health surveys which allow respondents to report on different aspects of their health. The commonly-asked question, "How is your health?" is one way of collecting data on self-perceived health status. Despite the subjective nature of this question, the answers received have been found to be a good predictor of people's future health care use. Across the OECD, about 68% of the adult population say their health is "good" or "very good". In Canada and the United states, 88% of adults report being in good health; while in Japan and Korea, despite very high life expectancies, less than 40% of people rate their health as "good" or "very good". Cultural and framing factors may affect responses to this broad question on health status.

Men are more likely to report good health than women, with an OECD average of 71% of men saying their health is "good" or "very good" compared with 66% for women. The gap is largest in the Russian Federation, Portugal and Latvia. Age and social status also have an impact on answers. Not surprisingly, older people report poorer health, as do those who are unemployed, or who have less education or income. About 79% of adults with a disposable income in the top 20% across OECD countries rate their health as "good" or "very good", compared to about 58% for those with a disposable income in the bottom 20%.

Health in Detail by Country