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UK women's life expectancy 'second worst' in Western Europe

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“British women have second worst life expectancy in Europe,” The Guardian reports.

This is one of the findings of a Europe-wide health report carried out by the World Health Organization (WHO). The report also warned that European levels of alcohol consumption, smoking and obesity are alarmingly high, which could result in the following possibility: “Young Europeans may die at an earlier age than their grandparents”.

In the interests of accuracy, we should point out that the claim British women have the second worst life expectancy in Europe is incorrect. This figure is based on an analysis of countries traditionally regarded as being part of Western Europe. Life expectancy figures in other parts of Europe, such as Russia and the Balkan states, are significantly lower than in the UK.

What is the basis of these reports?

The WHO has published its European Health Report, which measures progress against health targets for Europe, looking at how individual countries compare, and commenting on possible future threats to the health of the region. It publishes this regional report every three years.

What data did they look at?

The WHO looked at progress towards six targets for Europe. These were:

  • to reduce premature mortality (early death)
  • to increase life expectancy (how long people born now can expect to live)
  • to reduce inequalities in the health of people across the European region
  • to enhance wellbeing
  • to move towards everyone in Europe having access to healthcare
  • to establish individual targets for European countries

They reviewed statistics on death from:

  • heart disease, strokecancers and respiratory diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • estimates of the life expectancy of male and female children today
  • comparisons between different states of health outcomes
  • measures of wellbeing
  • lifestyle factors, such as tobacco smoking, alcohol consumption and obesity
  • health policies in different countries

Many figures were based on estimates. For example, figures on tobacco and alcohol use are estimates by the WHO researchers, who applied trends in tobacco reduction from the period 2000-08 to national figures collected in 2010. The report authors say more up-to-date information had not been submitted by individual countries.

What are the main findings?

Despite the tone of the news coverage, the report is generally positive, showing that Europe is on track to achieving targets to reduce premature death from cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes and lung diseases.

However, it says that most of the recent progress has been seen in the countries that had the worst health records, rather than countries like the UK, which were already doing relatively well.

The report warns that Europe has the highest rates of alcohol consumption and tobacco smoking in the world, with obesity rates second only to North America. The report authors warn that these lifestyle factors “are among the major public health problems” in Europe and that Europe is likely to miss a target to reduce tobacco use by 30% by 2025.

Looking at country-specific figures, the report says that people in the UK are much less likely to smoke (estimates are around 20%, compared to a European average of 30%). People in the UK drink, on average, 9-12 litres of pure alcohol a year (equivalent to around 100-130 bottles of wine), in line with the European average of 11 litres.

Rates of obesity and overweight are among the highest in Europe, with only Turkey and Andorra reporting more obese people.

The report showed life expectancy at birth has been rising in Europe since the 1990s and stood at 76.8 years in 2011 (the most recent date for which figures were available). Women live longer than men, with an average life expectancy of 73 for men and 80 for women. In the UK, the figures are 78.8 for men and 82.7 for women. While this is better than the European average, it puts life expectancy for UK women low on a WHO list of 15 benchmark Western European countries. Most of the figures for life expectancy for women on this list cluster around the 83- to 84-year mark, ranging from 82.1 in Denmark to 85.5 in Spain.

The media reports of British women’s life expectancy being the “second lowest in Europe” does not reflect that this is based on a list of just 15 countries – not the whole of Europe. By contrast, life expectancy for women in Russia (which is not on the list) is just 75.

What does this mean for me?

If you compared this data to data from 100 years ago, a trend would become immediately obvious. In 1915, many Europeans would die of infection. Today, the biggest killers are what are known as non-communicable diseases (NCDs). These are non-infectious diseases such as lung cancer, heart disease and stroke, which are usually associated with lifestyle factors including obesity, smoking and alcohol consumption.

The report warns that NCDs are now the biggest threats to future health in Europe.

The good news is, while there is no room for complacency, UK rates of tobacco smoking are below the European average and continue to fall.

Alcohol consumption in the UK is in line with the rest of Europe – and Europeans are the biggest consumers of alcohol in the world. However, perhaps what is most worrying are the statistics on obesity and overweight, where the UK is among the worst in Europe.

The report says the figures on alcohol, tobacco and obesity are “alarmingly high” and acknowledges that individual countries have made progress in tackling them. Commenting on the report, the WHO warns that, while Europeans are living longer, these lifestyle factors “could mean that the life expectancy of future generations will fall”. 

Ways you can reduce your risk of developing one or more NCDs include stopping smoking, drinking alcohol in moderation and maintaining a healthy weight through diet and exercise. These steps should also help keep your cholesterol and blood pressure at a healthy rate.

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