Most would agree it's not simply how long you live, but staying active and healthy that matters. A long healthy life, followed by a swift death, is to be preferred to lingering ill-health. So new European research has captured some media attention. As reported in the Sunday Times, Britons live longer but we're still the unhealthiest nation in Europe:
People in Britain spend more years suffering ill health than most other Europeans, according to research by the European Union. The figures suggest that British women can expect 60 years of fit and active life. In Italy, the healthiest nation, they can expect to enjoy robust health until they are over 74.
Britons are living longer but the differences in life expectancy across Europe are relatively small. The far wider differences in quality of life are much more significant, researchers believe.
They emphasise that their findings are only provisional and their figures are only estimates. But they hope the study will encourage countries to focus healthcare on increasing the number of “healthy years” enjoyed by their citizens and not simply on extending lives.
Carol Jagger, professor of epidemiology at Leicester University and lead researcher on the EU study, said: “Life expectancies are going up for all countries but in terms of healthy life years, the UK is not keeping pace. The prevalence of disability is rising and that mirrors the fact that the prevalence of disease is rising.”
The research, based on questionnaires filled in by about 60,000 households around the EU each year, found British men can expect to live 76.2 years with an average of 61.5 years free of any disabling condition, which means that they spend just under 81% of their life in good health. This makes them the fifth unhealthiest men in the EU. The healthiest, Italians, spend 70.9 years in good health, equivalent to 92.3% of their lives.
Only Portugal, Finland and Hungary rank lower than Britain. British women live the fifth lowest number of years without a debilitating illness.
Because the figures are the first attempt by the EU at making such international quality-of-life comparisons, researchers have not yet been able to explore the reasons for the variation.
However, James Goodwin, head of research at Help the Aged in Britain, said part of the reason could be smoking and diet. “There are also differences like the way they organise access to doctors and healthcare in France and Germany, so you might expect older people there to have a better deal,” he added. “And the weather may very well play a part. There is a decreasing trend in cardiovascular disease from north to south in Europe.”
...Sir John Grimley Evans, emeritus professor of clinical gerontology at Oxford University, ...agreed that prolonging life expectancy was less important than delaying the onset of fatal disease. This would make it more likely people had brief final illnesses rather than long years of disability. “Live long, die fast,” he said.
The figures come from the European Health Expectancy Monitoring Unit project, whose work on disability-free life expectancy (DFLE) in Europe has thrown up some interesting results. A presentation (PPS file) Jagger gave last year reported that Italy had the highest DFLE for women, while for men, Italy, Belgium and Spain had similar high rates. Disability-free life expectancy was lowest in Finland for both men and women.
For a lighter perspective, Italian journalist Guido Santevecchi today dishes up a little friendly advice for Brits on Living la dolce vita:
First of all, at lunchtime, stop that crappy junk food, be it sandwiches or pots of salad that you are so eager to buy after queueing for ages in the street or at Tesco. And stay well away from your company canteen with its frustrated cooks.
Instead, go home for your lunch. It's what the Italians do, and it serves us well. OK, your boss may object, but really your boss should be going home at lunchtime too. ...When at home, have a decent ration of pasta with a glass of red (one, no more - doctor's orders).
...So that's lunch. The next bit involves rest, something the British are bad at. There are still quite a few Italian people indulging in a nice pennichella (a little rest) after lunch. Why not try it too?
...And on that note, stop going jogging like a horse at noon, when you should be heading home for your leisurely lunch. What is the point of being slim and fit if it means sacrificing a decade of good health?
This more Italian, more leisurely approach to your day should be carried through to the workplace. When you are back at your desk, some time in the afternoon, after a nice stroll, spend at least half your remaining working time drinking coffee with mates or spreading gossip about your boss. Sure, the scientists don't talk about this stuff - but it's all part of the Italian way.