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UK life expectancy still rising

Friday 18 March 2011

Britons are living longer than ever before despite concerns about obesity and health problems, according to the Daily Mail. Average life expectancy has soared to 80 years old, it reports - eight years higher than in the 1970s.

The story is based on research looking at international life expectancies. It found that Western Europe has seen steady increases in life expectancy, which mean that, on average, people from these nations will live longer than those in the US. One important contributor to this, says the author, is the decline in deaths from cardiovascular disease. The report also points out that with the increase in obesity, there is widespread concern that this increase in life expectancy in Europe and other high-income countries may come to an end.

The report has used mortality data from reputable international sources, and its findings are likely to be reliable. Its finding that life expectancy in Western Europe, including the UK, has risen since 1970 is encouraging. It should be pointed out that the report only looked at overall life expectancy in Europe. It should be noted that it did not examine the current impact of the “obesity epidemic” or life expectancies in specific social or ethnic groups. It remains uncertain how the increase in obesity will affect life expectancy in the future.

Where did the story come from?

The report was written by Professor David Leon, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. No sources of external funding were reported. The study was published in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Epidemiology.

The study was reported accurately in the papers, which mostly concentrated on the rise in UK life expectancy and its favourable comparison with the US. Some stories pointed out that this rise has happened despite the “obesity epidemic”. However the BBC, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail all included comments from the author that the obesity problem could affect life expectancy in the future.

What kind of report was this?

This was a commentary on the trends in European life expectancy from 1970 to 2009 (the last year for which figures were available), based on data from two sources: the WHO Health for All Database and the Human Mortality Database. The author points out that epidemiologists often get caught up with specific health issues and lose sight of the “bigger picture” – i.e. whether mortality is declining, health is improving overall and things are moving generally in a positive direction.

Although this was not intended to be a systematic review of life expectancy and relevant epidemiological studies, the narrative is based on mortality data from reputable international sources, and its findings are likely to be reliable.

What were the findings?

The report’s main finding is that since 1970, life expectancy in Western European countries has typically risen by six to eight years. This compares favourably with the US, where in 2007 life expectancy was at the same level as the lowest of any European country (Portugal for males and Denmark for females). The data itself does not include separate figures for the UK, but an accompanying press release says that in 2007 overall 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, it says 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, it says. 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.

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The report also 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. The review’s author has reportedly said that 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 also says 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, he adds.


This discursive, narrative review by an epidemiologist and expert in population health has found that life expectancy in Europe is currently increasing, and that in Western Europe it has been steadily increasing since 1970. The report is based on mortality data from reputable international sources, and its findings are likely to be reliable. The findings are encouraging for Western Europe, including the UK.

However, it should be pointed out that the report only looked at overall life expectancy in Europe. It therefore did not examine the impact of the “obesity epidemic” or other health problems, or life expectancy within subsections of the population. Also, as the author points out, it remains uncertain how the increase in obesity will affect life expectancy in the future.

It should also be noted that the author’s theories about the causes of changes in life expectancy in Europe, while of interest, are not proven. Life expectancy is also only one measure of a nation’s health. Other factors, such as quality of life and time spent free from illness, are arguably important too.

Analysis by Bazian
Edited by NHS Website

Links to the headlines

Britons enjoy longer lives than Americans

The Daily Telegraph, 18 March 2011

We're healthier than ever: How British life expectancy has soared past US to 80-years-old

Daily Mail, 18 March 2011

UK life expectancy 'on the rise'

BBC News, 18 March 2011

Why we are all living longer

Daily Express, 18 March 2011

Links to the science

Leon DA.

Trends in European life expectancy: a salutary view

International Journal of Epidemiology. First published online: March 17, 2011