The Meaning of Life: 42 (degree north?) – Life expectancy in EU regions

8 Aug

The economic crisis may have dented the increase in life expectancy a bit, but it is still the crisis-ridden Mediterranean regions of the EU that fare the best…In this piece we take another look at life expectancy, concentrating on the EU. We wrote about this topic before, where we already pointed out that southern regions in the EU have higher life expectancy. In this piece we will look at recent data, and try to give a rough estimate how much income differences matter for life expectancy. The result is that northern parts of Spain and Italy, southern France (and cities like Madrid and Paris) still look good after adjusting for income.

EU crisis finally hitting life expectancy?

In practically every EU region, life expectancy has increased since 2007, the year before the financial crisis started. But in 2012 this increase stalled and reversed in many countries, including Spain, Portugal and Greece. It seems that the 2012 second dip recession was more harmful than the original financial crisis, or maybe there was a delayed effect.

Picture2_ENSource: Eurostat

In rich regions people live longer. This is not that surprising, but the correlation is reasonably close (see chart below). Every 10% increase in income adds about 3 months to life expectancy.

Rich people live longer, ones in ex-communist countries shorter


Source: Eurostat, own calculations

People in ex-communist EU countries live shorter lives, even after controlling for income. Females live about 1.5-2 years and males about 4 years less than in other EU countries. Again, this is not due to income differences as we have controlled for that in the regressions.

Go South, Old Man

What are the best places for life expectancy once we controlled for income? In general, Mediterranean regions and the French overseas territories in the Caribbean fare well – see map.

final_nok_woTRSource: Eurostat, own calculations

For women, the best places are Martinique in the Caribbean, followed by several northern Spanish regions, including Madrid. The worst place for women (apart from Central and Eastern Europe) is Scotland.

For men, Castile in Spain is best, followed by Puglia, the “heel” of the Italian boot. Iceland is third, but the rest of the top 10 are all Spanish and Italian regions (plus the Italian part of Switzerland). The worst places for men (again apart from CEE countries) are, surprisingly, Madeira and the Azores, but Scotland is pretty bad too. Apparently not all islands are equally good then…

As can also be seen from the maps, northern countries fare worse in life expectancy. If we order the EU regions by latitude (and look at our regression residuals), we find that the “sweet spot” for life expectancy is around 42 degrees north in “old” EU members (those who became members before 2004) – see chart. Males bear northern latitudes somewhat better than females.

The roughly 3-year difference in life expectancy between the best and worst regions (after adjusting for income) is huge, but of course it is not clear what exactly explains it. Latitude is a proxy for something, possibly climate, food, lifestyle, genes, social cohesion, something else or all of the above. And it is not at all certain that moving into a seemingly better region would increase the life expectancy of outsiders.



Source: own calculations

In Central and Eastern Europe, the best region in terms of life expectancy is western Slovenia, which is the only one to be above the “old EU” trend-line. Slovenia as a whole is roughly at the old EU trend-line, so the country is escaping the ex-communist penalty in life expectancy. The worst regions (even after adjusting for income) are in Hungary, Bulgaria and Lithuania (here the whole country is one region). Thus the “old EU” pattern of southern countries living longer is roughly reversed.

There is some tendency for regions with low life expectancy to increase their life expectancy faster, but this convergence is rather slow; it would take about 40 years to eliminate differences. But some countries are increasing their life expectancy faster: the Baltic countries recently had spectacular increases in life expectancy, about half a year on average each year between 2007 and 2012, and for males the increase was even faster – but they are also starting from very low levels.

Baltic states close their gaps faster…


Source: Eurostat

It is of course very difficult to say to what the reasons are behind life expectancy differences and changes. But the Baltic countries are doing something right, and the Mediterranean is still nice, not just in terms of sea and food…

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