European Commission: Report on Health inequalities: gaps in life expectancy and infant mortality narrow across the EU

The European Commission published today a report on Health inequalities: gaps in life expectancy and infant mortality narrow across the EU. It underlines the wide variation in life expectancy and infant mortality historically found between EU countries is narrowing, according to a report published today by the European Commission. The gap between the longest and shortest life expectancy found in EU-27 decreased by 17% for men between 2007 and 2011 and 4% for women between 2006 and 2011. The gap in infant mortality between the EU countries with the highest and the lowest rates went down from 15.2 to 7.3/ per1000 live births between 2001 and 2011. Average infant mortality in the EU also fell during this period - from 5.7 to 3.9 per 1000 live births. The report points to some positive developments in implementing the EU strategy on health inequalities, 'Solidarity in Health', while concluding that more action is needed at local, national and EU levels.

European Health Commissioner, Tonio Borg, said: "Inequalities in health in terms of life expectancy and in particular in infant mortality have been significantly reduced in the European Union in the past few years. This is encouraging. However, our commitment must be unwavering in order to address the continued gaps in health between social groups and between regions and Member States, as shown in this report. Action to bridge health inequalities across Europe must remain a priority at all levels."

Health inequalities between countries, regions and social groups

  • Sweden has the highest life expectancy for men - 79.9 years, a difference of nearly 12 years vis-à-vis the Member State with the lowest expectancy (68.1).
  • Life expectancy for women is highest in France - 85.7, a difference of 8 years vis-à-vis the Member State with the lowest expectancy (77.8 years).
  • When it comes to healthy life years in men, there is a difference of 19 years between the lowest and highest values in the EU (2011 figures). For women, this was nearly as high at 18.4 years.
  • In 2010, the gap between life expectancy at birth between most and least advantaged regions in the EU was 13.4 years for men and 10.6 years for women.
  • In the same year, there were seven EU regions with infant mortality rates greater than 10 per 1000 live births. This is more than 2.5 the EU average of 4.1/1000.
  • In 2010, the estimated gap in life expectancy at age 30 for men between the least and the most educated varied from around three years up to 17 years in different Member States. For women the gap was slightly smaller, varying from 1 to 9 years.

Causes of health inequalities

The report examines various factors causing health inequalities and finds that social inequalities in health are due to a disparity in the conditions of daily life and drivers such as income, unemployment levels and levels of education. The review found many examples of associations between risk factors for health, including tobacco use and obesity, and socioeconomic circumstances.

Addressing health inequalities in the EU

In 2009, the Commission adopted a strategy on health inequalities entitled " Solidarity in Health: Reducing Health Inequalities in the EU". The progress report published today looks at how far we have come on the five main challenges laid out in the strategy: 1) an equitable distribution of health as part of overall social and economic development; 2) improving the data and knowledge base; 3) building commitment across society; 4) meeting the needs of vulnerable groups; and 5) developing the contribution of EU policies.

Overall, the Commission's action aims both to support policy development in EU countries and improve the contribution of EU policies to address health inequalities. An ongoing Joint Action, running from 2011 to 2014, is a major vehicle to achieve this.

Achieving the goals of Europe 2020 for inclusive growth is fundamental to addressing health inequalities. In February 2013, the Commission adopted a paper on Investing in Health, as part of the Social Investment package. The paper strengthens the link between EU health policies and national health system reforms and presents the case for: smart investments for sustainable health systems; investing in people's health; and investing in reducing inequalities in health.

The EU Health Program, the Cohesion and Structural Funds, as well as the Research and Innovation Funds (Horizon 2020) can support investment in health all across the European Union.

The report on Health inequalities and information on EU action to address health inequalities are available here