A longer life thanks to reunification

Those over 60 benefit most from a longer life thanks to the fall of the Berlin Wall

September 09, 2014

If there had been no reunification, in the year 2011 men in eastern Germany would have died an average of 6.2 years earlier than in unified Germany. Women would have lived 4.2 years less. These are the results of MPIDR researcher Tobias Vogt's mathematical model.

If there had been no reunification, in the year 2011 German men in eastern Germany would have died an average of 6.2 years earlier than in unified Germany. Women would have lived 4.2 years less. These are the results of the mathematical model which Tobias Vogt of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock used to project up to the year 2011 how life expectancy at birth would have developed in the former GDR if the Wall had not fallen. In the year 2011, a girl born in eastern Germany would then have had a life expectancy of 78.7 years (instead of the actual 82.9 years). A boy could have expected 70.9 years (instead of the actual 77.1).

Even in a hypothetically still-extant GDR, life expectancy would have risen, but considerably less than in reality: Since 1990 women would have gained only 2.4 years (instead of 6.6 years in united Germany) and men only about ten months (instead of 7.8 years in fact). "The positive influence of reunification on life expectancy in the East is astonishing", says Tobias Vogt. Even in Japan, the country with the longest lifespan in the world, the values did not rise as fast as in the East after reunification.

Those over 60 benefited the most from the fall of the Berlin Wall

Those over 60 benefited most strongly from longer life, as Vogt discovered. When life expectancy as a whole rises, this is because the mortality rate falls in the individual age groups. The mortality rate corresponds to the risk of dying at a particular age. While only a minor role was played by the improvements in infant mortality and among individuals up to 40 years of age, the yearly probability of death sank considerably for those of greater age: "Among men, 30 per cent of the increase in life expectancy is attributable to the 40 to 60 year-olds, and 60 per cent to those over 60." For women, the trend is even more pronounced: The 60+ generation is responsible for 85 per cent of the six years of life gained since reunification.

In the old Federal Republic, the elderly had already benefited in the 1970s and 1980s from massive improvements in mortality rates. In particular, mortality from heart and circulatory diseases sank due to new methods of treatment. In those days, they were not yet available in the GDR, in particular for the elderly. Mortality rates remained high, and the increase in life expectancy lagged behind that in the West. By 1988, the East-West gap in the average lifespan of women had grown to almost three years and of men to a good two and a half years.

Only since 1989 has the gap been closing - even if at different speeds for the two sexes. In 2011, women in the West lived on average only a full month longer than those in the East; the men from the old federal states still had a lead of 14 months. "Without reunification, the East-West difference would have increased still further," says Tobias Vogt: Rising to 4.3 years for women, and to 7.4 for men.

Definite cause unclear

"A single cause for the speedy improvement of mortality and life expectancy in the East cannot be stated with certainty," says Tobias Vogt. It is probably mainly a result of the general improvement in medical care and the improved standard of living since reunification. Other health-related factors such as the reduction in environmental pollution or changes in lifestyle seem to play less of a role, MPID researcher Vogt believes, as life expectancy began to increase just as early and rapidly in polluted areas as in cleaner areas. And behavioural changes such as cigarette consumption would only have had an effect in the long term.

"But life expectancy in the east of Germany started catching up more or less right after the fall of the Berlin Wall," says Tobias Vogt. "The gain in lifespan is therefore one of the greatest, if also often overlooked, achievements of German unity."

Note to the press

This text is not based on any current scientific publication. The mathematical model for life expectancy comes from an article in the journal Gerontology (2013), in which data up to the year 2008 was evaluated. However, the model was supplemented with the latest data available from the years 2009 to 2011.


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