Life expectancy up in Europe but smoking, obesity causing concern - WHO

Some of 53 countries studied also have highest sense of ‘life satisfaction’ in world

Smoking, drinking, obesity and "under-vaccination" are hindering progress in the field of health in some European countries but there has been a sustained increase in life expectancy across the continent, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said.

In its European Health Report, published today, the WHO says some of the 53 countries examined enjoy the highest sense of "life satisfaction" recorded anywhere in the world.

However, it notes significant discrepancies between countries and the failure to halt or substantially reverse the negative effects of tobacco smoking; alcohol consumption; people being overweight and obesese; and under-vaccination remain causes for real concern.

"Progress is uneven, though, both within and between countries, between sexes, and across generations. Lifestyle-related risk factors give cause for concern, as they may slow, or even reverse the great gains in life expectancy if left unchecked," said Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO regional director for Europe.


The latest report, which provides an overview rather than a country-by-country breakdown, reveals that in Europe people are living, on average, more than one year longer than they were five years ago.

However, there is still more than a decade of difference (11.4 years) between countries with the highest and lowest life expectancy. It says good progress has been made in reducing deaths from all causes – and at all ages – since the beginning of the millennium, with about a 25 per cent reduction in 15 years.

Premature deaths

Overall, Europe is surpassing the target of reducing premature deaths from heart disease, cancer, diabetes and chronic respiratory diseases – by 1.5 per cent annually until 2020. The latest data point to a 2 per cent decline per year on average.

However, tobacco smoking rates in Europe are the highest in the world, with one in three people aged 15 and above smoking – though Ireland is among countries with lower smoking rates.

While alcohol use is declining overall, adult consumption in Europe is still the highest in the world. Levels of consumption vary between countries, ranging from 1 to 15 litres per capita every year. Ireland is, however, among countries with higher levels of “heavy episodic drinking” – based on previously published data.

More than half of the population is overweight and trends for adults being overweight and obese are on an upward curve across most of Europe, (including Ireland) with considerable variations between countries.

Child vaccination rates are improving in general across Europe, but recent outbreaks of measles and rubella in some countries “are jeopardising the ability of the region to eliminate these diseases”, the WHO says.

Deaths from external causes of injury or poisoning have declined steadily by about 12 per cent over five years; yet such deaths were more than three times higher among men than women.

Published every three years, the report aims to track progress against targets set by the Health 2020 policy initiative, which aims to establish equitable, sustainable and universal healthcare systems in Europe that give individuals control over the health decisions that most affect their lives.

The 2018 report acknowledges a great deal has been achieved since Health 2020 was adopted in 2012. Most European countries, including Ireland, are demonstrating real commitment to improving the health of their populations by setting targets, adopting strategies and measuring progress.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times