Healthy life years statistics
From Statistics Explained
- Data from March 2013. Most recent data: Further Eurostat information, Main tables and Database. Planned article update: May 2014.
Whether extra years of life gained through increased longevity are spent in good or bad health is a crucial question. Since life expectancy at birth is not able to fully answer this question, indicators of health expectancies, such as healthy life years (also called disability-free life expectancy) have been developed. These focus on the quality of life spent in a healthy state, rather than the quantity of life – as measured by life expectancy. Healthy life years are an important measure of the relative health of populations in the European Union (EU).
Main statistical findings
In 2011 the number of healthy life years at birth was estimated at 61.8 years for men and 62.2 years for women in the EU-27; this represented approximately 80 % and 75 % of total life expectancy for men and women.
Life expectancy for women in the EU-27 was, on average, 5.7 years longer than that for men in 2011. However, most of these additional years tend to be lived with activity limitations. Indeed, the gender gap was considerably smaller in terms of healthy life years than it was for overall life expectancy – at just 0.4 years difference in favour of women in 2011. Men therefore tend to spend a greater proportion of their somewhat shorter lives free from activity limitations. The healthy life years expectancy was higher for women than for men in 19 of the EU Member States, with the difference ranging up to 5.0 years in the United Kingdom. Furthermore, an analysis of the period 2008 to 2011 shows that the gap between the sexes became smaller, as the disability-free measure of healthy life years in the EU-27 increased slightly more for men than for women.
Across the EU Member States, life expectancy at birth for men in 2011 ranged between 68.1 years in Lithuania and 80.1 years in Italy; a difference of 12.0 years. A similar comparison for women shows that the lowest level of life expectancy in 2011 was recorded in Bulgaria (77.8 years) and the highest in France (both 85.7 years); a range of 7.9 years. The corresponding range for healthy life years at birth for men was between 52.1 years in Slovakia and 71.1 years in Sweden (19.0 years difference), while that for women was from 52.3 years in Slovakia to 70.7 years in Malta (18.4 years).
As such, it is clear that there are considerably wider differences between EU Member States in terms of the quality of life (health wise) that their respective populations may expect to live, when compared with the overall differences in the length of their lives. Men born in Slovenia in 2011 could expect to live 70.3 % of their lives free from any activity limitation, a share that rose to as high as 89.4 % in Malta. A woman born in 2011 in Slovenia could expect to live somewhat less than two thirds (64.5 %) of her life free from any limitation, a share that rose to 85.2 % in Malta.
An analysis comparing healthy life years between the sexes at the age of 65 in 2011 shows that there were 10 EU Member States where men could expect more healthy life years than women; this was most notably the case in Cyprus (2.4 years more).
Data sources and availability
Eurostat calculates information relating to healthy life years for three ages – at birth, at 50 and at 65 – with the indicator being presented separately for men and women.
The indicator for healthy life years is calculated using mortality statistics and data on self-perceived disability. Mortality data comes from Eurostat’s demographic database, while self-perceived disability data comes from a minimum European health module that is integrated within the survey on EU statistics on income and living conditions (EU-SILC). The EU-SILC question is: for at least the past six months, to what extent have you been limited because of a health problem in activities people usually do? Would you say you have been:
- severely limited?
- limited but not severely?
- not limited at all?
The health status of a population is difficult to measure because it is hard to define among individuals, populations, cultures, or even across time periods. As a result, the demographic measure of life expectancy has often been used as a measure of a nation’s health status because it is based on a simple and easy to understand characteristic – namely, that of death. Indeed, life expectancy at birth remains one of the most frequently quoted indicators of health status and economic development and has risen rapidly in the last century due to a range of factors, including: reductions in infant mortality, rising living standards, improved lifestyles, better education, as well as advances in healthcare and medicine.
While most people are aware that successive generations are living longer, less is known about the health of the EU’s ageing population. Indicators on healthy life years introduce the concept of the quality of life, by focusing on those years that may be enjoyed by individuals free from the limitations of illness or disability. Chronic disease, frailty, mental disorders and physical disability tend to become more prevalent in older age, and may result in a lower quality of life for those who suffer from such conditions, while the burden of these conditions may also impact on healthcare and pension provisions.
Healthy life years also monitor health as a productive or economic factor. An increase in healthy life years is one of the main goals for EU health policy, given that this would not only improve the situation of individuals (as good health and a long life are fundamental objectives of human activity) but would also lead to lower public healthcare expenditure and would likely increase the possibility that people continue to work later into life. If healthy life years increase more rapidly than life expectancy, then not only are people living longer, but they are also living a greater proportion of their lives free from health problems.
The European innovation partnership on active and healthy ageing is a pilot scheme that aims to increase the average healthy lifespan of Europeans by two years by 2020, through: improving health and quality of life; ensuring health and social care systems are sustainable and efficient; and creating growth and market opportunities for business. This partnership involves cooperation between the European Commission, EU Member States, regions, industry, health and social care professionals and organisations representing older people and patients. It aims to improve older peoples’ lives, helping them to contribute to society, and reduce pressure on health and care systems – ultimately contributing to sustainable growth.
In February 2012, the European Commission adopted a Communication titled ‘Taking forward the strategic implementation plan of the European innovation partnership on active and healthy ageing’ (COM(2012) 83 final) which is designed to accelerate the pace of innovation in relation to healthy and active ageing.
Further Eurostat information
- Health status (t_health_state)
- Health status (hlth_state)
Methodology / Metadata
- Healthy life years (from 2004 onwards) (ESMS metadata file - hlth_hlye_esms)
Source data for tables and figures (MS Excel)