Why is French life expectancy increasing more slowly?

Press release Published on 11 March 2019

Population and Societies no. 564, March 2019

Author: Gilles Pison

Life expectancy has progressed more slowly in France in recent years. Is this a temporary phenomenon, or does it signal a new long-term pattern of change? Gilles Pison analyses this question and examines how trends in France compare with those observed in other developed countries.

Since the mid-twentieth century, life expectancy at birth has increased by three months each year on average in France, rising from 66.4 years for both sexes in 1950 to 82.5 years in 2018. But the increase in life expectancy has slowed in recent years, with a rise of just 1.5 months per year on average for males and one month per year for females since 2014.

The seasonal flu epidemics have been especially severe in recent years, but the slower increase in life expectancy may also signal a more long-term pattern of change. Cancers have become the leading cause of death, and cancer mortality is declining more slowly than mortality from cardiovascular diseases, which has fallen very quickly in recent decades, thereby contributing strongly to increased life expectancy. This is partly due to an increase in smoking-related cancers among the generations of women now aged 50 and above who took up smoking between 1950 and 1980 and who are paying the price several decades later.

In the United States, life expectancy has levelled off and even decreased in recent years, for both sexes. Here again, the decline is due to increased smoking-related mortality, but also to public health issues, such as widespread obesity and an epidemic of adult opioid drug abuse. The United States also has an inegalitarian healthcare system that makes it difficult for the poorest people to access the care they need.

It is unlikely that the countries of Europe, France in particular, will experience a similar decline in life expectancy, as their healthcare systems are more protective and egalitarian than that of the United States. But if life expectancy is to increase in France in the coming years, cancer mortality must continue to fall for males and resume its decline for females.

Published on: 13/03/2019