Life expectancy in Ireland making strongest gains in western Europe, committee hears

Incoming HSE chief Bernard Gloster emphasises ‘significant improvement’ in mortality rates from heart attacks, strokes and cancers

The incoming chief executive of the HSE, Bernard Gloster, has emphasised the “significant improvement” in overall health in Ireland in recent years.

Addressing TDs and Senators in Leinster House on Wednesday morning, Mr Gloster said while he was conscious of “many challenges” with the HSE’s “top-heavy structure” and its “many cumbersome processes”, there has also been “a significant improvement recorded over recent years in the overall health of the population”.

Mr Gloster told the Oireachtas Health Committee that in 2021 life expectancy in the State was 84.4 years for women and 80.8 years for men, with increases of 1.4 years and 2.2 years respectively in the last decade, compared with increases of 0.1 years and 0.5 years for EU member countries in the same period. He said life expectancy in Ireland was now in advance of the EU average.

Mr Gloster said the gains in life expectancy had been driven by a sharp reduction in mortality from big diseases. He said the leading causes of death in Ireland include circulatory system diseases such as stroke and heart attack due to ischemic heart disease; as well as cancer and respiratory system disease. He said in the last decade the age-standardised mortality from all these causes of death have reduced by 33.5 per cent, 18.2 per cent and 33.4 per cent respectively.


He said infant mortality rates were low in Ireland and fell by 14.3 per cent in the last decade to three deaths per 1,000 live births in 2020.

Mr Gloster said recent reductions in mortality rates, including mortality for cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease and cancers, as well as gains in life expectancy underlined the importance of the services that were in place to promote and protect people’s wellbeing. People in Ireland were living longer lives than before, with life expectancy having made the strongest gains among western European countries.

He also paid tribute to HSE staff who he said had been “through several years of additional and demanding periods, brought about by the need to respond to a pandemic, cope with a cyberattack and work through one of the most challenging winters on record for health services”.

“The success of our combined community, acute and public health teams in mitigating the impact for so many cannot be understated,” he said.

Mr Gloster said he also wanted to devote attention to women’s healthcare; mental health; disability services; and care of older people.

Mr Gloster told Sinn Féin health spokesman David Cullinane that he had met the leadership of the Irish Nurses & Midwives Organisation (INMO) in recent days on the issues of capacity and numbers of patients on trolleys. He said he would not try to play down the importance of a safe environment for patients and hospital staff. He would “never shy from asking for more capacity”, but the first thing he was doing was to fill the beds that have already been approved.

Responding to questions from Róisín Shortall TD about new regional health areas, he said “the centre is just too top heavy”. He said the establishment of six regional administrative entities within the HSE was an issue over which he was taking direct personal responsibility.

In relation to a shortage of clinical places within the HSE and the organisation’s ability to retain staff, Mr Gloster told Ms Shortall he believed the HSE could not ask the higher education authorities to create extra capacity for training if the HSE was not employing graduates and absorbing them.

He said improvements were being made, but acknowledged that retention was a problem and people found the work very challenging. He was endeavouring to determine what issues would make working within the system less cumbersome. “The HSE cannot in its social care system allow for any avoidable delay in responding to access or quality of service or safeguarding issues for people who experience vulnerability.”

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien is an Irish Times journalist