Growing lifespans

The average life expectancy for Europeans could extend into the nineties.

Image credit: Public domain

On average, in Europe, men can currently expect to live till the age of 75 and women until they are 82. But what will their lifespans be in the next decades? Reliable answers to this question are essential to help governments plan for future health care and social security costs.

While medical improvements are likely to further extend lifespans, lifestyle factors can result in temporal distortions of this trend. Yet, most estimates of future life expectancy fail to consider changing lifestyles, as they only use past mortality trends in their calculations. This can make these projections unreliable: for example, increases in smoking rates among Northern and Western European men led to stagnating male life expectancies in the 1950s and 1960s, but these picked up again after smoking declined. The same pattern is showing for women, except it is lagging as they took up smoking later than men. Based simply on the extrapolation of past mortality trends, current projection models fail to consider the past and predicted modifications of life expectancy trends prompted by changing rates of health behaviours – such as increases followed by (anticipated) declines in alcohol consumption and obesity rates, similar to what was observed with smoking.

To produce a more reliable forecast, Janssen et al. incorporated trends in smoking, obesity, and alcohol use into life expectancy projections for 18 European countries. The predictions suggest that life expectancy for women in these countries will increase from 83.4 years in 2014 to 92.8 years in 2065. For men, it will also go up, from 78.3 to 90.5 years.

In the future, this integrative approach may help to track the effects of health-behaviour related prevention policies on life expectancy, and allow scientists to account for changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the meantime, these estimates are higher than those obtained using more traditional methods; they suggest that communities should start to adjust to the possibility of longer individual lifespans, and of larger numbers of elderly people in society.