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Science

Bad health: EU buries billions with 550,000 premature deaths due to chronic disease

A joint OECD/European Commission report says chronic diseases and premature deaths cost the EU billions every year. It calls for better prevention policies and improved health care. So what else is new?

Health reports seldom say anything new. There's the obligatory risk factors - smoking, alcohol and obesity - and an equally standard call for better prevention policies and improved healthcare systems. Let's face it: We could all live a bit more healthily.

Such is the mainline in "Health at a Glance: Europe 2016," a joint report launched Wednesday (23.11.2016) by the OECD and the European Commission in Brussels.

But what's striking about this report is the human cost of Europe's failing health.

The report estimates that about 550,065 people of working-age (25-64 years) in the European Union die prematurely from chronic diseases. It could be a heart attack, stroke, diabetes, or a form of cancer. And their dying early, says the report, costs the EU 115 billion euros annually.

Disability and paid sick leave cost EU countries on average 1.7 percent of GDP. The OECD says "the burden of ill-health on social benefit expenditures is huge."

And it's not just true for the newer European countries - or the usual suspects, as it were, in Central and Eastern Europe. The United Kingdom and Ireland also "lag behind in terms of cancer survival rates."


How this correlates with the "slow growth" of annual health spending across the EU is unclear, because countries with more money may also spend more.

At 6,000 euros per person, Luxembourg spends the most. Latvia and Romania spend among the least at 1,030 euros and 816 euros per person, respectively.

Both Germany and Ireland are in the upper bracket of health expenditure, with 4,003 euros and 3,922 euros per person in 2015, respectively. But Germany has the highest number of premature deaths from noncommunicable diseases in the EU at 86,545. Ireland has just 3,564 premature deaths due to NCDs.

If, however, you take the rate per 100,000 population, the picture gets a little clearer. Then, Hungary and Bulgaria lead the pack, followed by Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Poland. And Cyprus - perhaps thanks to the Mediterranean lifestyle - is way down the bottom, which in this case is good. 

Overall, Eastern European countries spend less than elsewhere - about 5 percent of GDP compared to 11 percent in Germany, Sweden and France.

But it's not only about the money governments spend to support efficient healthcare systems. Our health also comes down to what we do as individuals. Surprise, surprise.

"Many people die every year from potentially avoidable diseases linked to risk factors such as smoking or obesity," says Vytenis Andriukaitis, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety.

Other facts at a glance:    

  • A European born in 2014 can expect to live to over 80, up from 74.1 in 1990
  • Women live five years longer than men
  • More men die from cancer than women, especially lung cancer. About 21 percent of EU citizens smoke, down from 25 percent in 2000
  • About 60,000 people in the EU committed suicide in 2013
  • In 2015, almost 10 million people were known to live with a form of dementia, such as Alzheimer's disease
  • One in six kids is overweight or obese

The report, says Andriukaitis, "highlights the need to continue our efforts in making sure that healthcare becomes more accessible."

"Many more lives could be saved," says OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría, "if standards of care are raised to the best level across EU countries."

The "Health at a Glance" report is part of the Commission's "State of Health in the EU" initiative. You can read it here.

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