Have regional inequalities in life expectancy widened within the European Union between 1991 and 2008?

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Background: Health inequalities have widened within and between many European countries over recent decades, but Europe-wide sub-national trends have been largely overlooked. For regions across the European Union (EU), we assess how geographical inequalities (i.e., between regions) and sociospatial inequalities (i.e., between regions grouped by an area-level measure of average household income) in male and female life expectancy have changed between 1991 and 2008. Methods: Household income, life expectancy at birth and population count data were obtained for 129 regions (level 2 Nomenclature of Statistical Territorial Units, ‘NUTS’) in 13 European countries with 1991–2008 data (2008 population = 272 million). We assessed temporal changes in the range of life expectancies, for all regions and for Western and Eastern European regions separately. Results: Between 1991 and 2008, the geographical range of life expectancies found among European regions remained relatively constant, with the exception of life expectancy among male Eastern Europeans, for whom the range widened by 2.8 years. Sociospatial inequalities in life expectancy (1999–2008 data only) remained constant for all regions combined and for Western Europe, but more than doubled in size for male Eastern Europeans. For female Eastern Europeans, life expectancy was unrelated to regional household income. Conclusions: Regional life-expectancy inequalities in the EU have not narrowed over 2 decades, despite efforts to reduce them. Household income differences across European regions may partly explain these inequalities. As inequalities transcend national borders, reduction efforts may require EU-wide coordination in addition to national efforts.

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