Demographic change

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The last century has seen vast changes in Canada's population. With the notable exception of the post-war baby boom (1946 to 1965), there has been a steady decline in fertility, accompanied by a decrease in the death rate and an increase in life expectancy. These changes resulted in the aging of Canada's population. Evidence of this demographic transition can be seen in the median age of Canadians, that is, the age that divides the population in half. In 1956, the median age in Canada was 27.2 years1. It climbed to 39.5 in 20062 and is projected to reach 46.9 by 20561.

Three indicators illustrate the aging of Canada's population:  life expectancy, population composition (based on population estimates), and demographic dependency ratios.  Life expectancy reflects mortality, and therefore, levels of health and disease in the population.  As in other developed countries, life expectancy has increased in Canada and is projected to continue to rise.  In 2005, life expectancy was 78.0 years for males and 82.7 years for females3. This marks substantial gains since 1956 when life expectancy was 67.7 years and 73.0 years for males and females, respectively4  And according to projections (based on a medium mortality assumption), males born in 2031 will have an average life expectancy of 81.9 years, and females, 86.0 years1.

The composition of Canada's population also reflects the demographic shift to an older population with seniors accounting for an ever-increasing proportion of the population. In 2006, 13.7% of Canadians were 65 or older, up from 7.7% in 19562. It is projected that by 2056 seniors will comprise between 25% and 30% of the Canadian population5. While the proportion of seniors is increasing, children and young people comprise a decreasing portion of the Canadian population.  Mid last century, those aged 19 or younger made up 37% of the population compared with 24% in 20066. It is projected that the proportion of youth in Canada will continue to decline.

Changes in the demographic dependency ratios reveal Canada's shifting age structure. These ratios are the number of young people and/or seniors "dependents" for every 100 people of working-age.  Overall stability of Canada's demographic dependency ratio reflects a drop in the ratio for young people that is offset by an increase in the ratio for seniors.  

This changing population age structure has social and economic consequences7.  As many older Canadians retire and relatively fewer young people move into the workforce to replace them, a decreasing percentage of people are available to provide social and economic support for seniors. In 2006, there were 5 working-age people (20 to 64) for every senior, down from 7 in 19718.  By 2056, it is projected (based on a medium growth scenario) that there will be only 2 working–age people for every senior in Canada9.

The demographic shift continues to have an impact on many aspects of our lives, not the least of which is health.  Because Canadians are generally living longer than they did a century ago, they are more likely to experience chronic degenerative conditions such as arthritis and diabetes that develop over time and are more common at older ages.  Many chronic conditions are accompanied by pain and may result in activity limitations.  And because people often live with these conditions well into their senior years, the need for extended periods of informal care and health services grows.

Changes in fertility, death rates and life expectancy provide a backdrop against which to view changes in the health status and other aspects of Canada's population.

Please visit Health Profile for the latest health-related data for your region.


1. Statistics Canada. Canadian Demographics at a Glance (Catalogue 91-003) Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2008.

2. Martel L, Caron Malenfant É. Portrait of the Canadian Population in 2006, by Age and Sex, 2006 Census. Statistics Canada Catalogue 97-551.  Ottawa: 2007.

3. Statistics Canada. Life expectancy, abridged life table, at birth and at age 65, by sex, Canada, provinces and territories, annual (years) (CANSIM Table).

4. Nagnur D. Longevity and Historical Life Tables, 1921-1981 (Abridged).  Statistics Canada, Catalogue 89-506. Ottawa: 1986.

5. Bélanger A, Martel L, Caron-Malenfant E.  Population projections for Canada, Provinces and Territories, 2005-2031. Statistics Canada, Catalogue 91-520.  Ottawa: 2005.

6. Statistics Canada.  Canada Year Book Overview 2007, 2008 (Catalogue 11-402) Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2008.

7. Frederick J, Fast J.  Living longer, living better, 1998; Days of our lives: time use and transitions over the life course (Catalogue 89-584, no. 6) Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2004.

8. Statistics Canada. Estimates of population, by age group and sex for July 1, Canada, provinces and territories, annual (CANSIM Table).

9. Statistics Canada. Projected population, by projection scenario, sex and age group as at July 1, Canada, provinces and territories, annual (persons  x 1,000) (CANSIM Table).

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