LONDON (Reuters) - Life expectancy in Europe is continuing to increase despite an obesity epidemic, with people in Britain reaching an older age than those living in the United States, according to study of trends over the last 40 years.
In a report in International Journal of Epidemiology, population health expert David Leon of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said the findings counteract concerns that the rising life expectancy trend in wealthy nations may be coming to an end in the face of health problems caused by widespread levels of obesity.
They also suggest that simple factors like how rich a nation is and how much it spends on health care do not necessarily correlate with its people’s lifespans.
Despite spending more per head on health care than any other country in the world, life expectancy in the United States is at the same level as the lowest of any Western European country — Portugal for men and Denmark for women — and the rate for women is increasing at a much slower pace than Western Europe.
In 2007, life expectancy in the United States was 78 years, compared to 80 in Britain, Leon noted.
“This simple observation once again underlines that GDP and health-care expenditure per capita are not good predictors of population health within high income countries,” he wrote.
The report said that one of the most important contributors to the continued general upward trend in life expectancy had been the decline in deaths from heart disease.
Cardiovascular diseases, which can lead to heart attacks, strokes and other fatal events, are the leading cause of death worldwide, killing around 17.1 million people a year, according to the World health Organization (WHO).
Leon’s report said deaths from heart disease in Britain had 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.”
Within Europe, Leon pointed to a sharp contrast in life expectancy between east and west as the former communist bloc struggles to catch up with its longer-living neighbours.
Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, life expectancy has been rising in countries of central Europe such as Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, but as this has been at similar rates to Western Europe, the two halves of the continent have been following parallel trajectories, he said, making the east-west gap “very difficult to eliminate.”
Trends in Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union have been less positive, with life expectancy going up and down dramatically over the past 25 years. This is largely due to levels of hazardous drinking, particularly among men, Leon said.
Compared with Britain, where in 2008 life expectancy was 77.9 years for men and 82 years for women, Russian men could expect to live to 61.8 and women to 74.2 years, according to data from the WHO and the Human Mortality Database.
Editing by Diana Abdallah