Beijing's air pollution is driving down the number of years of health its citizens can expect.  Photographer: STR/AFP/Getty Images
Beijing's air pollution is driving down the number of years of health its citizens can expect.  Photographer: STR/AFP/Getty Images

If you want to be healthy for the rest of your life, don’t live in Beijing. Sure, the city’s life expectancy rates exceed those of the United States as a whole. But, according to data released Tuesday by Beijing’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the average 18-year-old Beijinger today should prepare to spend as much as 40 percent of those remaining, long years in less than full health, suffering from cancer, cardiovascular disease, and arthritis, among other ailments.

Of course, this isn’t all bad news. An aging population, after all, is a healthy, well-fed population. In 2011, the most recent date for which the World Health Organization has data, China’s citizens could expect to live 71 years -- more than double the Chinese life expectancy in 1949 when the Communist Party came to power.

But, needless to say, there’s much more to improving a population’s health than merely extending it. The World Health Organization and other public health entities use a measure dubbed “health-adjusted life expectancy” -- or HALE -- to judge how much of an average lifespan will be free of disease, disability, and other impediments to normal, healthy functioning. For developed countries, the gap between HALE and traditional life expectancy is usually around eight to 12 years, according to a 2012 study published in the Lancet, reflecting access to high-quality, life-extending health care. So, in 2010 Japanese men could expect a HALE of 70.6, compared to life expectancy of 79.3, and Japanese women could expect a HALE of 75.5 years, and traditional life expectancy of 85.9 years.

Meanwhile in developing countries, the gap between HALE and life expectancy tends to be narrower, reflecting a lack of access to medical care and shorter lifespans. Thus, in 2010 Chinese men could expect a HALE of 65.5 and life expectancy of 72.9, according to the Lancet data, while Chinese women could expect a HALE of 70.4 and life expectancy of 79.

Beijing, as a wealthy city where nutrition and health care are relatively accessible (at least as compared to most other parts of China), should exhibit a wider gap between HALE and traditional life expectancy. No doubt the city’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention fully expected to find one when it undertook a survey of 6,040 city residents and city morbidity records in 2012.

The true size of the gap, however, was shocking. While life expectancies have continued to grow, HALE numbers have gone backward. According to a summary published to the Beijing CDC’s website, the data showed that an 18-year-old male Beijinger now has a life expectancy of 80 years, and a shockingly low HALE of 61.4. Far worse, and almost defying believability, an 18-year-old female Beijinger has a life expectancy of 84, and a HALE of 56.06. In other words, she should expect to spend 28 years -- or roughly 41 percent of her remaining life -- in ill health.

Obviously, these numbers pertain to populations and not individuals. Nonetheless, it’s important to note that of the more than 100 countries surveyed by the Lancet in 2012, there isn’t a single one that exhibits a gap between HALE and life expectancy as wide as Beijing’s.

What accounts for the numbers? Pathetically, the Beijing CDC doesn’t even try to speculate. Instead, its published summary reminds city residents that “regular exercise increases life expectancy.” There is no mention of the air pollution that a 2013 peer-reviewed study suggested is directly linked to reduced life expectancy in Beijing, nor an additional study suggesting that coal burning has had a similar, perhaps compounding effect, on northern China.

Air pollution obviously isn’t the only health threat plaguing Beijing’s residents: water pollution, food contamination, and counterfeit pharmaceuticals are among some of the lowlights. Together, they create chronically bad health conditions that will not only increase the misery of Beijing’s rapidly aging residents, but will also require vast increases in spending to take care of their various ailments.

At this point, Beijing doesn’t need another warning that it has a pollution problem. The city fathers need only look out the window. But hopefully, the CDC’s numbers impress upon them that their often apocalyptic urban environment is creating more than an image problem. It's spawning a major health crisis for themselves, their families and their city -- one that they need to address urgently.

To contact the author of this article: Adam Minter at shanghaiscrap@gmail.com
To contact the editor responsible for this article: Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net