Life expectancy changes in European regions over two decades: have the gaps narrowed or widened?

In CRESH’s latest publication, in the European Journal of Public Health, we look at health inequalities across Europe from a geographical perspective: tracking how life expectancy changed between 1991 and 2008 within 129 regions of 13 countries (combined population 272 million in 2008).  Across this period life expectancies improved in every region (see maps below).  But we find no evidence that geographical inequalities narrowed during this time, despite efforts to reduce the gap.  In Eastern European regions the life expectancy gap for males actually widened.  We then investigate whether the inequalities could be “explained” by socioeconomic disparities between the regions – measured as regional-average household income (in comparable units).  We find that household income differences could partly explain the life expectancy gaps, although not for female Eastern Europeans. 

We note that although the imperative to reduce health inequalities is widely acknowledged, there has been uneven progress across Europe to address the problem.  As inequalities in life expectancy in Europe transcend national borders reducing these inequalities is likely to require EU-wide coordination in addition to national efforts.  The EU’s Joint Action on Health Inequalities project, initiated in 2011, could provide a good baseline, through encouraging knowledge transfer, improved access to structural funds and EU-wide policy-making.  The EU’s response to the recent financial crisis illustrates the feasibility of coordinating EU-wide fiscal and policy action when political will exists.

Figure: Male life expectancy in 1991 (top) and 2008 (bottom) in the 129 regions in our study. Data sources: GISCO and Eurostat database.


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