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The current rate of ageing in the European Union is economically unsustainable, according to researchers

The current rate of ageing in the European Union is economically unsustainable, according to researchers © Peter Caulfield |

The current rate of ageing in the European Union is economically unsustainable. This is the main policy message from the LEPAS collaborative project (Long-run Economic Perspectives on an Ageing Society), carried out throughout the last three years by researchers from Spain, Denmark, Germany and Austria.

This EU-funded research has tackled the urgent need to better understand how an ageing population is likely to influence the economy and whether or not those changes will be sustainable.

Europe’s population is ageing at an unprecedented rate, faster than any other continent, and is economically unsustainable. Life expectancy is increasing but the retirement age is not, meaning that people are spending longer time in retirement, putting greater pressure on pension systems. An ageing population, where ageing is understood as the gradual deterioration of physical and mental health and abilities, is also likely to put greater pressure on national health services.

Some of the main results from the LEPAS analysis are:

  • Both child and adult mortality are lower in richer countries.
  • Higher income affects a person’s decision to invest income in their health and diet, thus slowing down ageing and prolonging health. An increase in personal income of 100% increases life expectancy by 8%.
  • Improving healthcare efficiency has a greater impact than increasing per capita income. In theory, increasing healthcare efficiency by 100% could increase life expectancy by around 50%, although other factors are likely to preclude humans living this long.
  • Better-educated people generally live longer as they have more human capital to protect, which drives healthy behaviour. Every extra year of education increases life expectancy by approximately six months.
  • Higher income affects longevity but not the age of retirement, therefore higher income is associated with a greater number of years spent in retirement.
  • As human frailty and disability increases with age, the demand for healthcare services will increase per person over their lifetime.

The researchers suggest that efforts to increase longevity in developing countries should focus on improving the efficiency of healthcare technology, which will be more effective than re-distributing income. From a European perspective, their analysis suggests that improving education opportunities at young ages is the most promising policy approach to promoting health equality among adults within the EU.

LEPAS researchers carried out the project integrating a detailed representation of the physiological process of ageing and the fact that ageing can be influenced by external factors, such as income and healthcare efficiency, and by the choices we make, such as level of education, investing in health through exercise and a well-balanced diet, and deciding between working longer or retiring. Previous studies using simpler economic models may have been misleading, they explain, as ageing is over-simplified and represented only as the probability of death at a given age.

Predictions show that nearly 25% of the EU population will be over 65 by 2030 (an increase from 17% in 2005), and the number of people aged 65+ compared to working-age people (aged 15-64) is expected to double by 2050.

For more information about LEPAS, please visit