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We're living six years longer than we did in 1990

Per-Anders Pettersson / Getty Images News

People around the world are living a lot longer than ever before.

A new report from the World Health Organization (WHO) charts the improvements made just in the past couple decades, and the gains are huge. A baby girl born in 2012 can expect to live an average of 72.7 years, compared to a baby boy who can expect to live to 68.1 years. That's a six-year gain since 1990.

Low-income countries saw the largest life expectancy gains

The global average doesn't tell the whole story. Low-income countries, for example, made considerably larger gains than the rest of the world in the past two decades.

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What's driving these improvements? WHO primarily credits huge drops in the infant mortality rate. Between 1990 and 2012, the under-five mortality rate dropped from 75 deaths per 1,000 live births to 48 per 1,000 — a significant 36 percent drop. Since these deaths come at such a young age, a high infant mortality rate can significantly push down the average life expectancy.

But low-income countries still have a long way to go

While these gains are great, low-income countries are still mostly playing catch-up in the global health disparity.

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So people in low-income countries are living much longer than they used to, but they still need to gain a full 15 to 19 years of life before they catch up with the most developed nations. That's one reason global aid efforts, like those to get vaccines to poorer countries, are widely seen as crucial: a lot of people in low-income countries are dying from health conditions that the wealthy world can easily treat and prevent.