Health Crisis or Tempo Effects? An Analysis of Decreasing Life Expectancy in Europe between 2014 and 2015

Marc Luy, Vienna Institute of Demography
Markus Sauerberg, Vienna Institute of Demography

Several European countries experienced a decrease in life expectancy between 2014 and 2015 which is widely interpreted as indicator for an alarming health crisis. However, despite intensive efforts of experts, no specific cause for decreasing life expectancy could be identified until today. In contrast, some observations raise doubt that such a cause does even exist. We provide empirical evidence that the actual increase in mortality might in fact originate from so-called "tempo effects" which result from a deceleration in the prevailing mortality improvements and produce a downward distortion in the period life expectancy indicator. Our analyses reveal that such short-term fluctuations are not exceptional and do not necessarily reflect a real increase of mortality. A deceleration of mortality improvements implies a still ongoing decrease of mortality in 2015, just at a reduced pace. This would mean a very different message compared to the alarming reports about an increase of mortality. Whether there is a real health crisis can only be judged on the basis of future life expectancy developments. The fact that we can see for some countries which experienced a decrease in life expectancy between 2014 and 2015 already an increase between 2015 and 2016—to an even higher level than in 2014—speaks also against the existence of a severe health crisis. We therefore call for caution to avoid over-interpretations of the actual decrease in life expectancy.

Presented in Session 22: Mortality Trends in High(er) Income Countries