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Aging in good health: the inequalities are widening

Life expectancy is increasing, but this does not necessarily mean more time spent in good health. NCCR LIVES researchers affiliated with the University of Geneva have taken an interest in this evolution and have combined data from the Swiss National Cohort (SNC) with data from the Swiss Health Surveys. The results of their study show that although years of good health are increasing for men and women, there are differences according to education level that increase social inequalities. Thus, in 2010, men with a university degree lived 8.8 years longer in good health than those with only compulsory education, compared to 7.6 years longer in 1990.

Five researchers from the University of Geneva, four of whom are members of the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES “Overcoming Vulnerability: A Life-Course Perspective”, crossed data from the Swiss National Cohort (SNC) with data from the Swiss Health Surveys between 1990 and 2015 to determine whether the years gained in life expectancy added time to health or disease. 

Women continue to live longer than men and have added 3 years to their healthy life expectancies. However, in their case, continuing this longitudinal research is all the more important because women’s social codes and their way of life have changed much more than men’s have. Stéphane Cullati noted, “The gap between women with secondary and tertiary education is indistinguishable here, because our data concern women born in the 1920s and 1930s, when access to higher education was limited and few worked. It would be interesting to repeat this survey in 50 years, now that women are studying and working just as much as men.”

Men have gained 5 years of life, of which 4.5 years are spent in good health, but the most important differences are in education levels. The example of men who have completed compulsory education is telling. “The gap in healthy years between men with compulsory education and men with tertiary education is 7.6 years in 1990, but 8.8 years in 2010, showing that the gap is widening,” explained demographer Adrien Remund. 

Graphs: Life expectancy (LE), Healthy life expectancy (HLE), and Years of bad health (YBH) with 95% confidence intervals by education level and sex (Swiss National Cohort and Swiss Health Interview Survey, Switzerland, 1990–2014).