Regional Inequalities in Length of Life: A Nordic Comparison

Sven Drefahl, Stockholm University
Ben Wilson, Stockholm University
Paul Henery, University of Sterling
Isaac Sasson, Tel Aviv University
Caroline Uggla, Stockholm University

One of the most established dimensions of inequality in mortality is regional variation. However, studies that investigate regional mortality patterns across national borders are extremely rare. We respond to this gap in the literature by carrying out a comparative study in Finland and Sweden. A comparison of these two countries is of particular interest for several reasons. First, they are neighbors, with a shared history, and similar political and environmental conditions. Second, they have very different national mortality trajectories. Here we investigate the regional differences in gender-specific mortality in both countries and how they have changed over time. We explore these differences using individual-level register data from both countries applying a variety of mortality measures, including life span variation. First results suggest pronounced north-south mortality differences in both countries, larger differences between male and female life expectancy in Finland, and specific patterns for the Swedish-speaking minority regions in Finland.

One of the most established dimensions of inequality in mortality is regional variation. However, studies that investigate regional mortality patterns across national borders are extremely rare. We respond to this gap in the literature by carrying out a comparative study in Finland and Sweden. A comparison of these two countries is of particular interest for several reasons. First, they are neighbors, with a shared history, and similar political and environmental conditions. Second, they have very different national mortality trajectories. Here we investigate the regional differences in gender-specific mortality in both countries and how they have changed over time.

Our main research questions are:

  1. What are the regional differences in male and female mortality in Finland and Sweden and how have these differences within and between the two countries changed over time?
  2. How do the Swedish speaking regions of Finland compare to the other regions in both countries?
  3. How does the comparison change when we examine different measures of life expectancy, in particular life span variation (rather than average mortality)?

We explore these differences using individual-level register data from both countries applying a variety of mortality measures, including life span variation.

Previous research

There are three recurrent themes in the Finnish literature. First of all, clear differences in mortality are observed between the north and east of Finland and the south and west (excluding the capital city of Helsinki and the surrounding region). Regions in the south and west are consistently observed to have lower mortality than in the north and east, both by region of birth and by region of residence (Saarela and Finnäs, 2006, 2010). Consistent mortality differences have been observed by mother tongue. Swedish speakers in Finland have lower mortality than Finnish speakers (Saarela and Finnäs, 2005; Sipilä and Martikainen, 2009; Saarela and Finnäs, 2010, 2011). Differences are also observed in those who have one or more Finnish-speaking parents, despite being Swedish-speaking themselves. Language differences in mortality are reduced, but by no means disappear, after controlling for socio-economic factors (education, occupation, employment status and marital status) (Saarela and Finnäs, 2005, 2011). It has been suggested that these differences may be genetic, or as a result of learned higher-risk behaviour in Finnish-speaking areas or from Finnish-speaking parents (Saarela and Finnäs, 2010), with Finnish-speakers are more likely to die of suicide, alcohol-related or violence-related causes(Sipilä and Martikainen, 2009).

In Sweden, previous research has often described a general trend of increasing mortality from south to north. Counties within North Sweden have usually exhibited the highest mortality levels, while counties within south Sweden generally have the lowest overall mortality, with some overlap with Mid-Sweden, (which tends to be a little more mixed).

First results

First results suggest pronounced north-south mortality differences in both countries, larger differences between male and female life expectancy in Finland, and specific patterns for the Swedish-speaking minority regions in Finland. Traditionally, the life expectancy of Sweden has been among the world''s highest, while Finland has been the worst of the Nordic countries in terms of life expectancy. However, in recent years these patterns have changed and Finnish life expectancy increase has been much faster than in Sweden. The regional mortality patterns we map here reveal the catching-up effect that has catapulted some of the Finnish regions to the top of the common ranking, especially for female life expectancy.

Presented in Session 1189: Mortality and Longevity