Page last updated at 00:03 GMT, Monday, 17 November 2008

Periods of healthy old age 'vary'

Ageing man
Periods of healthy old age vary widely, the researchers found.

The health of older Europeans varies widely between countries, even in those with longer life expectancies, a report has claimed.

The study found people in Estonia, Latvia and Finland had fewer years of good health after the age of 50.

People in the UK fare relatively well, enjoying nearly 20 years on average.

The lead authors of the Lancet study, from Leicester University, said the figures could help governments plan for future health needs.

Life expectancy/healthy years after age 50
UK: 79.5/19.7
Sweden: 80.3/20.2
France: 79.6/18.0
Spain: 79.5/19.2
Austria: 79.1/14.5
Germany: 79.0/13.6
Finland: 78.5/12.9
Denmark: 78.3/23.6
Estonia: 72.4/9.0
Latvia: 71.3/11.0

The researchers collected data on life-expectancy, then surveyed older people from each country to find out whether they felt that illness had limited their ability to carry out normal activities.

This was used to calculate how many "healthy life years" a man and woman from each EU country could expect after their 50th birthday.

In some cases, this revealed problems not immediately apparent by just looking at life expectancy charts.

For example, Austrian men and women can expect to live on average to 79 and almost 84 respectively.

However, only half of their years after 50 will be free of ill-health, according to the figures.

In Germany and Finland, the gap between life expectancy and healthy years is even worse.

The newest entrants to the EU, already recording lower life expectancies than established members, appear to have populations blighted by chronic illness in old age.

In Estonia, men live on average to just under 73 years old, and women to over 80 - but men can expect only nine years' good health after 50, and women only a year more than this.

UK 'average'

While the UK has a generally lower life expectancy than some other EU states, its "healthy life year" score suggests that the health gap is not as wide as suggested by life expectancy alone.

Life expectancy/healthy years after age 50
UK: 82.7/20.8
France: 85.4/19.7
Spain: 85.0/18.6
Finland: 84.1/13.9
Sweden: 84.0/20.3
Austria: 83.7/15.7
Germany: 83.0/13.5
Denmark: 81.9/24.1
Estonia: 80.5/10.4
Latvia: 79.3/12.7

Men here can expect to live until almost 80, and women to more than 82. However, for men, almost 20 years of this will be in good health, and just over 20 for women.

This compares to Spanish women, who live to 85, but can expect fewer of those extra years to be healthy ones.

Lead researcher Professor Carol Jagger, from Leicester University, said: "What we have here, for the very first time, is data we can really compare.

"And it really questions whether the countries with the longest life expectancies are the healthiest.

"In the case of the UK, we are looking pretty average, but slightly better than our life expectancy figures suggest."

She said that the figures might be useful to governments who are trying to work out the number of older people able to remain working, or who will need health care.

The results might mean that an EU target of increasing the number of older people working might be a difficult one to meet.

"Without an improvement in the state of health of older people, it will be difficult to raise the retirement age or bring more older workers into the workforce for certain EU countries."

John Appleby, from the health policy think tank The King's Fund, said that the figures threw up some "interesting differences" between countries.

He said: "I'm not entirely surprised by the results for the UK. It possibly partly reflects a better health and welfare system which supports older people in this country.

"This is an area which is often missed out in comparisons between countries. Life expectancy on its own is quite a crude measure, and just doesn't tell you about the quality of that life."

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