No evidence of stalling life expectancy in Belgium, 1997-2018

Life expectancy at birth is a key indicator of the health status of a population across all generations and a key measure to make comparisons between different populations. Life expectancy has strongly increased since decades in Belgium and in most European countries due to improved living conditions, to progress in healthcare and medical knowledge, and greater awareness about unhealthy lifestyles. However, in February 2019, a working paper of OECD raised concerns about a slowing down of the increase of life expectancy in OECD countries [1]. Indeed, EU average life expectancy at birth increased with 1.5 and 1.1 years for men and women, respectively, between 2006 and 2011, and with 0.9 and 0.5 year between 2011 and 2016. In the US, life expectancy at birth even decreased [1]. For the same years, the change in life expectancy in Belgium decreased from +1.2 (2011 versus 2006) to +1 (2016 versus 2011) in men, and increased from +0.7 to +0.8 in women. The question therefore arises whether the slowing down in the improvements in life expectancy observed for those specific years could be generalized to the last 22 years in Belgium.

This question was explored using the official life tables of 1997 to 2018 (Statbel). As we can see in Figure 1, life expectancy has almost continuously increased in Belgium since the start of the century (except in 2012 and 2015).

Figure 1. Life expectancy at birth by sex, 1997-2018
Source: Statbel [2]

Figures 2 and 3 show the changes by year in life expectancy at birth in Belgium between 1998 and 2018. Those changes were mostly positive, but showed important variation from one year to another. In women, stagnations in life expectancy followed by large increases were common. A linear regression was fitted to assess the evolution of the annual changes in life expectancy over the period 1998-2018. In men, the slope was practically flat (slope = -0.0002, CI: -0.014, 0.013). In women the slope was slightly decreasing, but this change was not significant (slope = -0.002, CI: -0.019, 0.015). The average annual percentage change was also computed; in men the AAPC was 0.32% (CI: -1.27%, 1.91%) and in women the AAPC was -0.74% (CI: -3.09%, 1.60%).

  • Men
  • Women

Figure 2. Change by year in life expectancy, men, Belgium, 1998-2018

Figure 3. Change by year in life expectancy, women, Belgium, 1998-2018

To further investigate changes in the trends of life expectancy, the existence of points of change in the trend was examined. However, no statistically significant breakpoints in the trends of life expectancy between 1998 and 2018 were found.

In the last decade, annual changes in life expectancy exhibited important variability, including years with large increase and a few years with some decrease. Consequently, analyses of changes between specific years are sensitive to the selected start and end years. A trend analysis is better suited to examine possible changes. Our model did not confirm the hypothesis of a slowing down of the increase in life expectancy in Belgium in the last decade, even if we observed two (three) years with decreasing life expectancy (2012, 2015, 2017 in women). Various hypotheses have been put forward in literature and in other countries experiencing the same phenomena, including influenza epidemics, drug overdoses, suicide, and austerity. Further analyses by age, sex, and causes of deaths are needed to unravel the causes of the decrease in the above-mentioned years.

References

  1. Raleigh VS. Trends in life expectancy in EU and other OECD countries: Why are improvements slowing? [Internet]. 2019 Feb [cited 2019 Apr 8]. Report No.: 108. Available from: https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/social-issues-migration-health/trends-in-life-expectancy-in-eu-and-other-oecd-countries_223159ab-en
  2. Statbel, 2000-2018. https://statbel.fgov.be/en/themes/population/life-expectancy-and-life-tables