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Headlines Published on 28 July 2006

Title Getting old: sharing the burden

In the second instalment on life expectancy and health, Headlines recalls the detailed results of the SHARE survey, a project funded by the research Framework Programme to help Europe deal with ageing populations, and related retirement and health challenges. The findings highlighted a clear north-south divide in life expectancy and healthy lives.

Close-knit family units are a source of wealth on their own. © PhotoDisc
Close-knit family units are a source of wealth on their own.
© PhotoDisc
The results of a survey, published in 2005, by the joint EU-funded SHARE project show a clear north-south curve for health and income, with older people in the North better off financially and in better health, but not necessarily living longer than their southern European neighbours.

The main aim of the survey was to provide reliable information for researchers and policy-makers in the field of public health, economics and social sciences. Europe has the highest proportion of older citizens of any continent worldwide and the average age of Europeans will continue to increase for many more years. Accurate data today is critical to managing a mounting challenge tomorrow.

“SHARE clearly shows how results from EU-funded research projects can help to make sound policy decisions,” noted European Commissioner for Science and Research Janez Potočnik in a statement on the release of the findings. “Social security systems and governments need to know how their populations will develop to adapt social and economic policies accordingly,” he stressed. 

The three-year SHARE project put together data from 11 European countries on the life circumstances of some 22 000 people. “‘Old Europe’ has the highest proportion of older citizens of any continent, and the population ageing process will continue for the better part of this century,” noted SHARE in a statement last year.

Family units remain firm
SHARE kicked off in 2002 with €2.9 million in EU finance and contributions from other agencies and the USA. Headed by the Research Institute for the Economics of Ageing at Mannheim University, Germany, the 23-partner project processed data on diverse health variables, such as self-reported health, physical functioning, cognitive functioning, health behaviour, use of health care facilities, as well as psychological variables, such as psychological health, well-being and life satisfaction.

It also collected data on economic variables, including current work activity, job characteristics, opportunities to work past retirement age, sources and composition of current income, wealth and consumption, housing, education, and looked into social support variables, such as assistance within families, transfers of income and assets, social networks, and volunteer activities.

Key findings – appearing in a book entitled ‘Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe’ – include the link between education and healthy living. All 11 countries surveyed registered strong connections between health, behaviour and socio-economic status. People with a lower education are 70% more likely to be physically inactive and 50% more likely to be obese, the study revealed.

SHARE was the first survey to include comparable indicators of quality of care for older persons. These suggest there is room for improvement, with a serious lack of geriatric assessments and screening tests. The results show a major problem with underused labour capacity due to early retirement particularly in southern European countries, but also Austria and France, the study pointed out. It found that “agreeable workplace conditions support later retirement”.

On the social level, SHARE found that the ‘family unit’ has remained intact across generations all over Europe, but on financial matters north-south differences emerged. More money is handed down from parents to children in the north, while the reverse applies in the south.

The SHARE data on consumption, the first of its kind, revealed unexpected differences across countries. Food consumption is much lower in the northern countries (e.g. Sweden and Denmark) than elsewhere. Overall, it was concluded that lower income did not equate to lower consumption, or greater inequality. It was also noted that “poverty is often alleviated by non-financial resources”, such as living closer to family – a more prominent southern trait.

Source:  Rapid press, SHARE project

More information:

  • SHARE project
  • Europe’s elderly – How are they? (press release, 28 April 2005)

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