World Health Matters: Bridging the life expectancy gap in Germany
by Gary Finnegan: Twenty-five years after reunification, the once considerable differences between life expectancy in eastern and western Germany have nearly disappeared for women. East German men have also benefited strongly from unification, but they still lag behind western men.
Overall, a clear south-north gradient has developed throughout Germany with regard to life expectancy, which often reflects economic development. Individual regions, such as the Ruhr region and Saarland are lagging behind considerably, according to a study by the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock.
“Life expectancy has increased everywhere and continues to rise everywhere,” says demographer Sebastian Klüsener. “However, the degree to which the regions benefit, differ markedly.”
In fact, the gains in the life expectancy of women between 1996 and 2010 vary between six months and over six years. “The biggest increase can be seen in the east,” says researcher Rembrandt Scholz.
In 1996, women in the old German Federal States lived an average of one year longer than women in the new German Federal States (West: 80.2 years; East: 79.0). This gap has now dwindled to just a few months (West: 82.8 years; East: 82.6). For men, life expectancy in the west is still over one year higher than in the east (2010: West: 78.0 years, East: 76.6).
Nevertheless, men in the new Federal States have gained considerable ground. In terms of regions, the biggest winner is the north-east. With gains of around nine percent, the eastern parts of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and eastern Brandenburg have shown strong improvement.
The administrative district of Rostock leads the field with a gain of six-and-a-half years between 1996 and 2010. Districts like Dahme-Spreewald and Uckermark in Brandenburg have also recorded six-year-plus gains.
People live longest in the south: At 83.6 years, Baden-Württemberg is the top Federal State for life expectancy in women and is followed by Saxony, Bavaria and Hessen. “But whether a region falls behind has increasingly less to do with east or west, north or south,” says Sebastian Klüsener.
The major east-west divide arose during the GDR period because the health system there lagged behind the system in the Federal Republic. After reunification, together with the differences in medical care and pensions, the large disparities in life expectancy were increasingly consigned to the past.
“Today, it is the highly developed regions throughout Germany that lead the field,” says Rembrandt Scholz. This is also related to migrant flows. “Highly developed regions attract people with a high level of education who live considerably longer.”