In Europe, men live on average 75 years and women 82 years. Research has largely shown that certain lifestyle behaviours are bad for health and have an impact on how long people can live. Specifically smoking, alcohol abuse and behaviours resulting in obesity (unhealthy diets, insufficient physical activity) are unhealthy and very common among people in Europe. It is known they have strong negative effects on individual health, but how much of an impact do they have on national life expectancy levels as a whole, and developments therein over time?
In their study, Fanny Janssen (Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute (NIDI) and University of Groningen), Sergi Trias-Llimós (London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and Centre for Demographic Studies CED Barcelona) and Anton E. Kunst (University of Amsterdam) examined for the first time the individual and combined effects of these lifestyle factors not only on life expectancy levels but also on secular trends in life expectancy for 30 European countries.
Their research shows that without the effect of smoking, obesity and alcohol, life expectancy levels in Europe would have been 5.8 years higher among men and 2.3 years higher among women in 2014. For men, smoking had the largest impact on life expectancy levels (3.4 years; 1.8 years for alcohol; 1.3 years for obesity). For women, the impact of obesity (1.2 years) was the largest (0.8 years for smoking; 0.5 years for alcohol).
The impact of the three lifestyle factors is, however, not stable over time. Among men in the 30 European countries studied, the average combined impact of smoking, obesity and alcohol on life expectancy at birth declined from 6.6 years in 1990 to 5.8 years in 2014. This was mostly due to a decline in smoking-attributable mortality. Among women, the average combined impact of smoking, obesity and alcohol on life expectancy at birth actually increased from 1.9 to 2.3 years during the same period due to, on average, increases in all three factors.
The observed average increase in life expectancy at birth between 1990 and 2014 was five years (from 69.3 to 74.3) for men and four years (from 77.3 to 81.2) for women, across the 30 European countries. If the impact of smoking, obesity and alcohol were not taken into consideration, then this increase would have been 4.2-4.3 years for both men and women. This rather stable and more uniform increase in life expectancy had these lifestyle factors not occurred likely captures the underlying gradual increase in life expectancy in Europe, which are a result of overall socio-economic growth and medical progress.