Mortality: Overview, 2010 and 2011

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by Laurent Martel

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This article presents an analysis of recent trends related to deaths and mortality in Canada, based on death records from Vital Statistics for the years 2010 and 2011. Statistics Canada’s revised postcensal population estimates data for the same years are also used to compute various mortality indicators.

The analysis focuses on the total number of deaths, probabilities of dying, survival probabilities, the infant mortality rate and life expectancy. The data are also analysed by province and territory, as well as by age and sex, when relevant.

Trends in death counts

Since the mid 1930s, the number of deaths registered each year in Canada has followed an overall upward trend despite some annual fluctuations (Table 1 and Figure 1).

After a slight decrease between 2008 (238,617 deaths) and 2009 (238,418 deaths), the number of deaths increased in 2010 to 240,075, and increased again in 2011 (242,074), reaching its highest level observed since the introduction of the Vital Statistics registration system in the 1920s.

The increase in the number of deaths can be explained by two factors: population growth, as a larger population generates a higher number of deaths and population aging, that is, the share of the population concentrated at older ages—when mortality is higher—is increasing.

It is expected that the number of deaths will continue to increase in the coming years in Canada, as the large baby-boom cohort, comprised of people born between 1946 and 1965, is shifting to older ages.

The upward trend in the number of deaths over the last several decades was also observed in all provinces and territories despite some fluctuations from year to year which usually have more of an effect for regions with a smaller population. The observed number of deaths in 2011 was the highest ever recorded in 6 of the 13 provinces and territories, that is, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Nunavut.

Distribution of deaths by age and sex

For the first time in the data observed since 1926, there were about the same number of female and male deaths in Canada in 2011 (Figure 2), with a difference of only 10 deaths (121,042 male deaths and 121,032 female deaths).

The two numbers have been converging during the last three decades, as female deaths have been increasing faster than those of males. This situation is related to the recent decline in male mortality, which has been more rapid than the decline in female mortality. Thus, the expected increase in the number of deaths related to population growth and population aging is reduced more among males than females.

In 2011, there were more male than female deaths at all ages until age 83, when the situation reversed (Figure 3). At the oldest ages there were fewer male survivors, owing to higher mortality risks for males compared to females throughout the life course. Consequently, more deaths are observed among women than men at the oldest ages due to the larger size of the female population who reached this age group.

In 2011, the age at which the highest number of deaths was registered was 85 years for males and 89 years for females. For males, about 74% of all deaths occurred at age 65 and over, while for females, the proportion was 83%. Very few deaths were observed for both sexes between ages 1 and 14, that is, there were 366 male deaths (0.3% of all male deaths) and 273 female deaths (0.2% of all female deaths). In comparison, a larger number of deaths were observed among the centenarian population, particularly for females, with 430 and 2,046 deaths for males and females, respectively, accounting for 0.4% of all male deaths and 1.7% of all female deaths.

Probabilities of dying by age and sex

Over the lifespan, probabilities of dying follow a pattern similar to a checkmark shape: the probability of dying is higher in the first year of life, most often in the first few days, and then it decreases to reach the lowest levels between age 1 and 14 (Figure 4). Probabilities of dying then increase between 15 and about 24 years, especially among males, due to violent deaths such as accidents and suicides. Probabilities of dying subsequently increase steadily through adulthood and the senior years to reach their highest levels at about 0.4 (or 2 chances out of 5 in a given year) at age 105 and over.

Probabilities of dying in 2009/2011 were consistently lower for females than for males during the lifespan as the age-specific ratios of male to female probabilities of dying were always above 1 (Figure 5). The biggest difference was observed in the early twenties. The smallest difference was observed at the oldest ages due to a selection process, given that survivors to these ages are most ‘resilient’ with lower mortality rates both for males and females.

Over the last thirty years, mortality differences between males and females have decreased, especially for those in their twenties and between 50 and 75 years. For example, the probability of dying for males in their early twenties was 3.6 times higher than that of females in 1980/1982, decreasing to 2.5 times in 2009/2011. Many factors are related to this trend, with three of the most important being the reduction in violent deaths among male teenagers and young adults, better treatment against cardiovascular diseases and increasing similarity of women’s behaviour to that of men, particularly in the case of smoking, drinking and work-related stress.

Survival probabilities

Using data on the number of survivors at different ages available in Statistics Canada’s complete life tables1, it is possible to compute survival probabilities between any ages.

The 2009/2011 period life table shows that 87% of male newborns and 92% of female newborns would have survived to age 65 if they experienced throughout their lives the age-specific probabilities of dying observed during this period. In 1961, the proportions were 69% among males and 81% among females.

The probability of surviving between age 65 and 85 was 47% among males and 61% among females for 2009/2011, basically double what it was fifty years earlier, in 1961, when it was 22% and 33%, for males and females, respectively.

Under mortality patterns observed during the 2009/2011 period, the chances of a newborn reaching 100 years of age was 2% for males and 5% for females. Fifty years ago, both males and females had less than a 0.2% chance of surviving to age 100.

Infant mortality

After a slight increase between 2009 and 2010 from 1,872 to 1,902, the number of deaths occurring in the first year of life decreased to 1,810 in 2011 despite a slight increase in the number of births between those two years, from 377,213 in 2010 to 377,636 in 2011 (Table 2).

As a result, the infant mortality rate for 2011 was 4.8 deaths per 1,000 live births, the lowest level observed on record in Canada (Figure 6). The infant mortality rate has fluctuated around 5 deaths per 1,000 live births since 2006.

From one province or territory to the next, the infant mortality rate can be quite different. It was highest in Nunavut at 26.3 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2011 and lowest in New Brunswick at 3.5 deaths per 1,000 live births. In recent years, only British Columbia had an infant mortality rate that was consistently under 4.0.

Infant mortality can be further decomposed into early neonatal mortality (in the first week of life) and neonatal mortality (in the first month of life). In 2011, close to two out of three deaths (63%) occurring in the first year of life in Canada actually occurred in the first week of life, with an additional 13% occurring in the remaining part of the first month of life. Thus, about three out of four deaths (76%) occurred before the beginning of the second month of life. The remaining infant deaths (24%) occurred after the first month of birth and before either the first birthday or the end of the calendar year. In comparison, fifty years ago (in 1961), the corresponding proportions were 58% for the first week of life and 8% for the remainder of the first month of life, showing that over this period, the decrease in infant mortality rate was mainly the result of a decrease in infant mortality after the first month of life.

Life expectancy

Period life expectancy is the average number of years individuals of a given population would live if they would experience, through the course of their life, the age-specific probabilities of dying observed during a given calendar year, or given period.

Period life expectancy has to be distinguished from cohort life expectancy, the latter representing the actual average number of years lived by a group of individuals born in a given year. Cohort life expectancies can only be computed once a given cohort is almost or totally extinct through mortality.

Period life expectancy at birth reached 79.3 years for males and 83.6 years for females in Canada over the 2009/2011 period (Table 3). Over the last decade, the life expectancy of Canadian males increased on average by 3.6 months every year, while gains for females were lower, at 2.4 months per year. As a result, the gap between the life expectancy at birth between males and females decreased from a maximum of 7.4 years reached at the end of the 1970s to 4.3 years in 2009/2011 (Figure 7).

According to OECD data for 2010,2 Japan had the highest female life expectancy at birth at 86.4 years, followed by Spain (85.3), Switzerland (84.9) and France (84.7). Highest male life expectancy at birth was observed in Switzerland (80.3 years), Japan, Iceland, Australia and Sweden (79.5) and Italy (79.4).

Life expectancy at age 65 has also increased, reaching 18.8 years for males and 21.7 years for females in 2009/2011. As a comparison, the corresponding figures were 13.5 and 16.1 years in 1961.

Among the provinces and territories, male life expectancy at birth in British Columbia surpassed 80 years for the first time in 2009/2011, at 80.3 (Table 4). For females, it reached 84.0 years during the preceding 2008/2010 period.

Ontario and Quebec were the other two provinces showing life expectancies close to, or above, the national average in recent years. All other provinces and territories had life expectancies at birth that were below the national average.


  1. Statistics Canada. 2013. Life Tables, Canada, Provinces and Territories: 2009 to 2011, catalogue no. 84-537.
  2. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. 2011. Life expectancy at birth, OECD Social Policy Division.
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