Europeans living longer, says new EU study

Brussels: A 14-nation study comparing life expectancy and health of Europeans has found that people are living longer across the board, but differences are still notable between countries.

In 2003, Portugal had the lowest life expectancy at birth for men, some four years less than the highest, Sweden. WomenÂ’s life expectancy was lowest in Denmark and highest in France. Italy and France were the top two nations for life expectancy among women. Like in the recent World Cup final, Italy again narrowly beat France in term of male life expectancy.

Between 1995 and 2003, life expectancy at birth rose in all 14 European countries surveyed by an average of three months per year for men and two months for women, notes the report from the first yearÂ’s work of the European Health Expectancy Monitoring Unit (EHEMU), a project funded by the European CommissionÂ’s EU Public Health Programme (2004-2007).

“Whether the extra years of life gained were spent in good or bad health remains a crucial question,” commented Professor Carol Jagger in a statement from the University of Leicester, which co-leads the EHEMU project.

Disability-free life expectancy varied more widely across the EU countries, she continued, “but this may be due to cultural differences in how people report disability”. Ranking countries by the number of years people live without disability is not feasible using current data, the researcher suggested.

“However, the trends between 1995 and 2001 will be less sensitive to such differences so we can compare how disability-free life expectancy is tracking life expectancy between countries,” she confirmed.

The report found that, between 1995 and 2001, Belgium, Italy and Spain appeared to be the healthiest countries as both men and womenÂ’s disability-free life expectancy at birth was increasing faster than life expectancy.

In Denmark, Great Britain and Portugal, disability-free life expectancy was increasing at the same rate as life expectancy. Other countries showed differences between men and women: in the Netherlands menÂ’s disability-free life expectancy increased faster than life expectancy but womenÂ’s disability-free life expectancy declined over the period, so Dutch women were living longer but the extra years were spent in poor health.

The main aim of EHEMU is to provide a central facility for the coordinated analysis and synthesis of life and health expectancies. The project teams are based at CRLC and the University of Montpellier, France; the University of Leicester, UK; the Scientific Institute of Public Health, Belgium; and the French National Institute of Demography, INED.

“We now have to explore the reasons for these differences through in-depth analyses,” said Professor Jagger. A number of factors could be responsible for the variations, such as smoking and diet, as well as the prevalence of diseases commonly resulting in disability, including stroke and coronary heart disease.

“The new EU structural indicator Healthy Life Years, which will be based on more comparable data, is an important step forward in monitoring the health of our ageing European populations for future planning,” she concluded.

Several research Framework Programme-funded projects are investigating the political implications of key social issues such as ageing and health. The AHEAD ‘Scientific Support to Policy’ project is gauging how an ageing population affects health care demand. Another, called HealthBASKET, is providing policy-makers with high-quality information to inform their decisions on health care services and costs across the Union. In addition, the EU-funded SHARE study presented its first detailed findings on health, ageing and retirement earlier this year. These are discussed in a coming Headlines story ‘Getting old: sharing the burden’.