Life expectancy levelling off – especially for Irish women

Extreme flu, obesity and diabetes among reasons advances into old age stall

It is unclear whether the recent life-expectancy slowdown is a long-term trend or not. Photograph: Frank Miller

It is unclear whether the recent life-expectancy slowdown is a long-term trend or not. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

Life expectancy in Ireland and other European countries may be plateauing after decades of continuous improvement, new research indicates.

For Irish women in particular, life expectancy has fallen slightly in some years, especially ones with bad flu seasons, the study by the OECD suggests.

The economic downturn in Ireland is spared any blame for the slowdown seen in recent years, despite previous research which has shown a link between austerity and deteriorating mental health, and rising suicide rates.

The impact of economic downturns on overall death rates is less consistent, according to the OECD research. Europe’s most successful economies, such as Germany, Sweden and The Netherlands, have experienced a greater slowdown in improvements in life expectancy than Ireland and other countries where austerity was most severe, it points out.

Diseases of old age are major contributors to the slowdown, it says. Improvements in heart disease have slowed in many countries, while pneumonia and the flu have claimed excess lives in some winters, and deaths from dementia and Alzheimer’s are rising.

In addition, rising drug deaths in some countries, notably the United States and the UK, have slowed and even reversed decades of improvements in death rates among adults.

Obesity and diabetes

Other factors considered in the report are rising obesity and diabetes – despite reduced smoking, alcohol, high blood pressure and cholesterol levels – and inequality.

Life expectancy in Ireland is still rising, as this country continues to catch up on our European neighbours. For men aged 65, it grew 1.3 years in 2006-2011, and by 0.7 years in 2011-2016; for women, the increases were one year and 0.2 years, respectively.

However, in 2014-2015, Irish men recorded no increase in life expectancy, while for women it fell by 0.1 years.

This mirrored a trend across Europe in 2015, widely attributed to a flu outbreak that hit older people hardest.

The slowdown in improvements in life expectancy since 2011 has been greatest in the US, where life expectancy has fallen in recent years, and the UK, but France, Germany, Sweden and The Netherlands have also seen a sharp slowdown.

Looking ahead, the study says it is unclear whether the current slowdown is a long-term trend or not, and whether the excess deaths seen in some winters become a regular feature given the ageing of the population.

According to the Central Statistics Office, the most recent figures for life expectancy at birth are 78.4 years for men and 82.8 years for women.