Life Expectancy in East and West Germany

After so many days of posting topics related one way or another with death, perhaps it is better to get back to life. One good excuse for doing this could be the 25th International Population Conference organised by the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population and which opened yesterday in Tours, France.

You can find the full conference agenda here, and there are topics to suit all tastes for those who are interested.

Over the next few days I’ll post on one or two of the workshop topics which catch my eye, and today it’s a paper by German-based researcher Marc Luy, entitled “A new hypothesis for explaining the mortality gap between eastern and western Germany” (Only extended abstract available online at present).

The extraordinarily good news is that people in the Eastern part of Germany (the old DDR) are now living considerably longer than they used to. Life expectancy in the East became steadily detached from that in the West in the period after the second world war. Since unification this process has started to unwind, especially from the mid ninetees onwards. The question is why?

The reasons for the old DDRs reversion to the same ‘longevity regime’ as the old FDR are – as might be expected – multiple and disputed, one thing however which has been established is that the relevant change itself is taking place *inside* the 60 to 80 age group. As Luy indicates:

The demographic changes and developments in Eastern and Western Germany are generally seen to offer a unique possibility to understand the interaction between societal, social respective economic conditions and population processes. Almost identical demographic composition and behaviour until 1945 were followed by 45 years of life under different political and socio-economic structures resulting in completely different demographic conditions…. With Reunification in 1990 the population in Eastern Germany returned to the Western societal and economic system what caused sudden changes in all its demographic developments. These special preconditions ? leading some scholars to describe the Eastern German population as a kind of ?natural experiment? generated a large number of researches about changes in Eastern German demography.”

“In the field of mortality research especially the rapid convergence of survival conditions since 1990 following roughly two decades of continuous divergence are subject of central interest. The fact that both, the former increase and the recent decrease of the life expectancy gap between West and East Germany were mainly caused by age groups between 60 and 80 led to the central message that ?it?s never too late? for increasing length of life.”

In trying to explain the change, Luy himself has argued that the only factor that shows a converging trend between Eastern and Western Germany comparable to the trends in life expectancy is the availability of nursing care. During the 1990s the West-East differences in nursing care diminished and are now on virtually the same level in the two parts of Germany.

Whilst stressing the importance of nursing care, Luy also suggests that people shouldn’t be lead to look for ‘one single ultimate cause’ for the transition (a point which is equally applicable in so many other areas). Changing lifestyles (under the impact of unification) and reduced cardio-vascular risk elements also play a part, but as Luy argues these seem to have insufficient incidence to be producing the convergence.

Still, some good news for a change from Germany (unless we allow ourselves to drift off into the gloomy area of the pensions implications that is), and possibly some important lessons to be learnt, especially the highly interesting and relevant point: it’s never too late.

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About Edward Hugh

Edward 'the bonobo is a Catalan economist of British extraction. After being born, brought-up and educated in the United Kingdom, Edward subsequently settled in Barcelona where he has now lived for over 15 years. As a consequence Edward considers himself to be "Catalan by adoption". He has also to some extent been "adopted by Catalonia", since throughout the current economic crisis he has been a constant voice on TV, radio and in the press arguing in favor of the need for some kind of internal devaluation if Spain wants to stay inside the Euro. By inclination he is a macro economist, but his obsession with trying to understand the economic impact of demographic changes has often taken him far from home, off and away from the more tranquil and placid pastures of the dismal science, into the bracken and thicket of demography, anthropology, biology, sociology and systems theory. All of which has lead him to ask himself whether Thomas Wolfe was not in fact right when he asserted that the fact of the matter is "you can never go home again".