Since 2003 Europeans have suddenly enjoyed fewer years of healthy life.
The Physics arXiv Blog
November 26, 2013
Europeans are living longer. But since 2003, they’ve suddenly enjoyed fewer years of healthy life, say demographers
One of the extraordinary features of the 20th century was the inexorable rise in life expectancy across the world. A baby born in Italy in 1900 had a life expectancy of about 41 years. By 2010, this had risen to 81 years, a rising trend that continues.
And yet this increasing lifespan masks a dark secret. Many developed countries are suffering an epidemic of chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease thanks to poor diets and sedentary lifestyles. The numbers are such that they must inevitably influence the health of nations as a whole but by how much?
Today, Ugo Bardi and Virginia Perini at the University of Florence in Italy offer disturbing evidence that the health of people in Italy has fallen dramatically since 2003. And they say the same pattern is being repeated across most of Europe for reasons that are hard to explain.
While life expectancy is relatively easy to measure objectively, the quality of a nation’s health is much harder to assess. In Europe, a body known as the European Community Household Project has been monitor the health levels since 1995 using surveys .
The data from these surveys allows statisticians to calculate an index known as Healthy Life Years Expectancy. This is a measure of the number of years of healthy life that people enjoy, or at least think they enjoy (since the way people perceive their own health is a key variable that is difficult to account for).
For many years, the number of years of healthy life have increased in line with life expectancy. For example, in Italy between 1995 and 2003, life expectancy increased from 75 to 80.1 for men and from 81.8 to 85.3 for women. At the same time, the number of years of healthy life increased from 66.7 to 70.9 for men and from 70 to 74.4 for women.
But in 2003, all that changed. The number of healthy years of life began to drop steeply, eventually stabilising around 62 years for both sexes. So while men and women are living longer, they are having fewer years of healthy life today than they did ten years ago. “an increase in life expectancy is not necessarily an indication of better living conditions of the population,” say Bardi and Perini.
That’s an extraordinary change. But it’s not limited to Italy. A similar drop occurred after 2003 in Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Greece, Spain, Austria, Portugal, Finland and Sweden. In France, a less pronounced drop occurred in 2006.
So almost everywhere in Europe, people are living longer but having fewer years of healthy life. Only in the UK, Denmark and the Netherlands did people buck this trend with the numbers of years of healthy life increasing in these places since 2003.
That raises an obvious question: what happened in 2003?
Bardi and Perini say the obvious culprit is the weather. In 2003, Europe experienced one of the most extreme heat waves on record. In August 2003 alone, an extra 45,000 people died across Europe, almost certainly because of complications associated with the high temperatures.
But this heat wave must have had other effects too. “It must have affected also the general health of those who survived the wave,” say Bardi and Perini.
Their hypothesis is that the extreme conditions triggered long term illnesses, particularly among those suffering from the chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and so on.
That’s a startling conclusion that has significant implications. For a start, while the summer of 2003 was clearly unusual, climatologists have repeatedly warned that more hotter summers are on the way. So we can expect more heat related deaths and illnesses.
Then there are the financial implications. More years of ill heath translate into significant health-care costs. And when these extra costs have to be paid for by governments themselves, as they do in Europe, that raises some uncomfortable issues. Either other government spending will have to be cut or taxes will have to rise to make up the extra. Neither prospect looks enticing.
And finally, there is the impact on quality of life. While people are happy to live longer, they want to spend this extra time enjoying life. Nobody wants more years of ill health. The drop in health raises the depressing possibility of a continent filled with an increasingly ill and suffering population
But while the weather is a possible culprit, it does not explain all of the trends. For example, France suffered the same increase in death rates during the summer of 2003 as many other European countries. And yet the number of years of healthy life didn’t drop here until 2006. How come?
And how did some northern European countries escape the drop, such as the UK and Denmark, while others didn’t, like Sweden and Finland?
Whatever the answers, the bigger question is what to do to reverse the trend or at least mitigate it. “These result highlight the negative effects of climate change on people’s health and underline the need of mitigation measures, especially in urban areas,” say Bardi and Perini.
Time for some careful thinking.