Life expectancy continues to increase

Harry Patch lived to 111 years old

A recent paper by Professor David Leon, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, in the International Journal of Epidemiology reports that Western Europeans are living longer than ever before despite concerns about obesity and health problems.  Average life expectancy in Western Europe is now six to eight years higher than in the 1970s.

The report used mortality data from the WHO Health for All Database and the Human Mortality Database, and its findings are likely to be reliable.

Data from 2007 indicate that average life expectancy for the UK was 80 years (for males 77.9 and women, 82), compared with 78 in the US.

The report also discusses life expectancy in Eastern Europe.  Between 1970 and the end of the 1980s, life expectancy in eastern European countries stagnated or declined, but after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, life expectancy started to rapidly rise in the countries of the CEE (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia).  This rise is still continuing but on a “parallel trajectory to Western Europe” that makes it difficult to close the gap between east and west.

Russia and the Baltic states have seen a decline in life expectancy that is only recently being reversed.  Russia in particular has had some dramatic fluctuations in recent years – its life expectancy in 2008 was just 68 years (men 61.8 and women 74.2) – the same age as 40 years previously.  Prior to this, Russia also saw a sharp decline in life expectancy between 1990 and 1994, when male life expectancy fell by six years to a low of 57 years.

The report discusses the possible causes of the trends in different countries.

The decline in cardiovascular disease is seen as an important contributor to the rise in life expectancy in Western Europe. According to the author,

Deaths from cardiovascular disease in the UK have seen some of the largest and most rapid falls of any Western European country, partly due to improvements in treatment as well as reductions in smoking and other risk factors.

The fact that US life expectancy lags behind the UK, he says, underlines that

GDP and health care expenditure per capita are not good predictors of population health within high income countries.

The rises in life expectancy seen in central Europe since the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 reportedly illustrate that mortality can fluctuate rapidly in response to social, political and economic change.

The study’s author believes that the dramatic fluctuations in life expectancy in Russia are associated with the “stress and chaos” after the collapse of communism, as well as high rates of alcoholism. The recent upward trend in life expectancy in Russia and the Baltic states is probably due to recent reductions in alcohol-related deaths, rather than overall health improvements.

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