• Spain and Italy have the longest-lived populations in the EU.
  • There are large variations in life expectancy across Europe, a new Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report shows.
  • The data reflects the situation prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is possible that in the worst-hit countries, 2020 could see a decline in life expectancy for the first time in decades.

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,” as Benjamin Franklin remarked. But just as tax rates differ depending on the jurisdiction, so life expectancy varies across borders.

As the chart below shows, there are big gaps in longevity even between the relatively affluent countries of Europe, where a Spanish woman can expect to live more than 16 years longer than a Latvian man.

a graph showing life expectancy in Europe
Life expectancy varies greatly access Europe's different economies.
Image: OECD

So what makes some countries more conducive to a long life than others?

What people eat is a major factor. Long life is more common in places where the Mediterranean diet is the norm, such as Spain, Italy and Cyprus. Numerous scientific studies have proved the benefits of the typical Mediterranean diet: high in vegetables, fruits, nuts, olive oil and fish, and low in meat (especially red meat) and most dairy products. The combination reduces the risk of strokes and heart attacks, the two biggest killers worldwide. At the other end of the scale, there is a much higher incidence of heart and circulatory diseases in Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the Baltic states.

Health spending also plays a significant role. Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries spend three or four times the amount of money per capita on healthcare than the average in Eastern Europe. This mirrors the situation in the rest of the world, where there is a strong correlation between health and wealth.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about healthcare value and spending?

Each year, $3.2 trillion is spent on global healthcare making little or no impact on good health outcomes.

To address this issue, the World Economic Forum created the Global Coalition for Value in Healthcare to accelerate value-based health systems transformation.

This council partners with governments, leading companies, academia, and experts from around the world to co-design and pilot innovative new approaches to person-centered healthcare.

Other factors that can affect longevity include lifestyle choices such as alcohol consumption and smoking, environmental issues like air pollution, and genetics. In every country, women tend to live significantly longer than men, with the biggest gaps in the Baltic states, and the smallest in the Netherlands.

A long life doesn’t necessarily mean a healthy old age, as the chart below demonstrates.

Life expectancy and healthy life years at birth, by gender, 2018 (or nearest year)

a graph showing life expectancy in Europe
Women are expected to live longe than men.
Image: OECD

For example, both men and women in Bulgaria are healthy and active for longer than in Portugal, even though their overall life expectancy is less. As more nations have ageing populations, getting more out of later life is becoming an increasingly important challenge.

What is the World Economic Forum doing to combat Alzheimer's?

Alzheimer’s Diesease, a result of rapid ageing that causes dementia, is a growing concern. Dementia, the seventh leading cause of death worldwide, cost the world $1.25 trillion in 2018, and affected about 50 million people in 2019. Without major breakthroughs, the number of people affected will triple by 2050, to 152 million.

To catalyse the fight against Alzheimer's, the World Economic Forum is partnering with the Global CEO Initiative (CEOi) to form a coalition of public and private stakeholders – including pharmaceutical manufacturers, biotech companies, governments, international organizations, foundations and research agencies.

The initiative aims to advance pre-clinical research to advance the understanding of the disease, attract more capital by lowering the risks to investment in biomarkers, develop standing clinical trial platforms, and advance healthcare system readiness in the fields of detection, diagnosis, infrastructure and access.

There is a caveat to the data in the OECD report: it all predates the COVID-19 pandemic. Until 2018, life expectancy had been increasing across the EU, although more slowly in recent years. It is possible that in the worst-hit countries, among them Spain and Italy, 2020 could see a decline in life expectancy for the first time in decades.