Croats dying ever younger, life expectancy three years shorter than EU average



Paun Paunović / CROPIX

For the second time in the last three years, average life expectancy at birth dropped in Croatia, which is unheard of in civilised countries outside of wartime and natural disasters.

The life expectancy of Croats, statistical indicator of the probable lifespan reached by people born in the observed year, assuming that key indicators remain the same as in the year of their birth, has declined for the second time in the last three years.

According to data from the State Bureau of Statistics, the life expectancy for boys and girls born in 2017 in Croatia is 74.9 years and 80.9 years, respectively, which is 1.2 months shorter life expectancy for boys and 4.8 months shorter for girls compared to those born in 2016.

A similar decline in life expectancy was observed in Croatia in 2015, when it decreased by 3.6 months for boys and by half a year for girls. Before that, the last decline that Croatia saw was in 1992 during the war, when life expectancy decreased by a year - from 72.2 in 1991 to 71.2 years. Since then, life expectancy had been growing steadily until 2015.

State of emergency

As a result of advances in medicine and improvements in the quality of life, life expectancy has generally been increasing for decades, and its decline is usually related to some state of emergency, such as a war or disaster, when mortality, especially in younger age groups, is significantly higher: since life expectancy is primarily based on the assumption that mortality will be the same as in the year of birth for which life expectancy is calculated, such a decline is expected.

However, in recent years there was no state of emergency in Croatia, and life expectancy has declined regardless. Experts say it is a consequence of a greater number of deaths, which is not diminishing, quite the opposite, despite the fact that the total population is decreasing due to low birth rates and high emigration. According to the official data, 50,000 more people lived in Croatia in 2016, compared to 2017. In spite of that, 2017 saw about 2,000 deaths more than 2016.

“A detailed analysis of mortality should be done by age groups, as mortality in younger age groups and mortality in the so-called early old age group, i.e. sometime in our 50’s, have the greatest impact on life expectancy”, said Ivan Čipin, MD, from the Department of Demography at the Zagreb School of Economics and Business.

Quality of life

Life expectancy is a hypothetical indicator that simulates how long a live-born child would live if it experienced mortality recorded in the year of his birth, that is, if the same proportion of new-borns died at the age of 1, 2 or 92. Data on life expectancy is obtained by calculating the year of survival for each age group. If the number of deaths in a particular younger age group remains the same or increases, and the total number of inhabitants from that age group decreases, the “survival” of that year is less likely and consequently life expectancy is decreased.

The number of deaths in 2017 was 53,477, which is the third highest absolute number of deaths since the country’s independence: a higher one seen only in 1992 and 2015.

“Life expectancy is actually an important indicator of today's quality of life and should primarily be observed as such”, Čipin says, adding that this does not mean that a baby born last year will live exactly 77.9 years. “This indicator is one of the most important indicators of the consequences of lifestyle and quality of healthcare in a particular country. It has been poor for Croatia for a long time now, even without the latest decline. According to the 2016 data, average life expectancy in Croatia is almost three years shorter than the EU average and, let’s say, than life expectancy in the neighbouring Slovenia. The longest life expectancy is in the Mediterranean countries - Spain, Italy, France and Malta.”

Croatia lagging behind

Although Croatia belongs to the same group of countries in terms of its other characteristics, it is seriously lagging behind with respect to life expectancy: life expectancy of a Spanish person born in 2016 is actually 5.3 years longer than life expectancy of his/her peer born in Croatia.

Lifestyle certainly affects these results, as does the quality of healthcare: many of the deaths that were likely to have had crucial impact on shorter life expectancy in Croatia (e.g. deaths caused by cancer in the younger age groups) could have been prevented by better healthcare. Other specific data point to the same conclusion as above: based on complex calculations, Eurostat experts calculated that better healthcare alone could have prevented 93 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants in Italy, 128 in Slovenia, and 216 in Croatia. At the same time Croatia is the only EU country where this figure has gone up.

In 2015, when Croatia saw shorter life expectancy for the first time after the war, this indicator was lower in a considerable number of other EU countries. Experts attribute this to a large number of deaths caused by flu epidemics and heat waves. The 2017 data for other countries have not yet been officially published to compare whether a similar decline occurred last year somewhere else besides Croatia.