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Health gap widening in Europe

March 13, 2013

Europeans are more healthy than anyone else in the world and live longer than ever before, according to the WHO. But it warns of increasing inequality across the continent - between the rich and poor and men and women.


The World Health Organization issues its European Health Report every three years. In its latest edition, published on Wednesday, it finds that the 900 million people across 53 countries in Europe and Central Asia live longer and healthier lives.

Life expectancy increased by five years between 1980 and 2010, to an average of 80 years for women and 72.5 years for men.

This was mainly due to a decrease in fatal road accidents, which fell by half since 1990 and maternal mortality, or death of women in childbirth, showing a similar decline.

"But there are persistent and widespread inequalities in health across the region, which in some cases are worsening," said Zsuzsanna Jakab, the WHO's regional director for Europe.

“On average, men are lagging behind women by an entire generation, as, in 2010, they had not reached the average expectancy enjoyed by women in 1980," said Ritu Sadana, co-author of the report.

This gender gap can be found across the continent, but the report also states that life expectancy in affluent western and northern Europe is higher than in the continent's eastern regions.

“National averages continue to show a huge inequality across the region - particularly an east-west divide,” said Ritu Sadana.

"Inequalities really have become a hallmark of European health," she added.

The main risk factors for Europeans today include tobacco and alcohol abuse. Alcohol consumption in Europe is the highest in the world, and an estimated 6.5 percent of all deaths are linked to its consumption. With some 27 percent of the adult population smoking, cardiovascular diseases, such as strokes and heart attacks, are accountable for 50 percent and cancer accounts for another 20 per cent of all deaths.

While 80 per cent of deaths are caused by non-infectious diseases, the WHO warns that infectious diseases such as tuberculosis as well as HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases remain a concern.

The WHO's report includes Central Asian countries like Tajikistan and Kazakhstan as well as Israel, but it sees the same challenges across the entire region as the population ages and over 70 per cent live in urban areas. The researchers warn that the changed lifestyle leads to problems such as lack of exercise resulting in obesity and air pollution causing a wide range of health problems.

Since an increase in the mid-1990s, suicide rates have fallen across Europe - by as much as 40 per cent in some countries.

But the WHO sees a slowing of that trend in recent years, which it links to the economic crisis in several European countries.

rg/lw (Reuters, dpa)

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