Europeans are living longer -- but how long will it last?

More than half of Europeans are overweight

By MICHAEL NEDELMAN, CNN
Jeremy Moeller/Getty Images

(CNN) - Europeans are living longer, but health officials say certain risks -- such as obesity and undervaccination -- threaten to slow or even reverse this progress, according to the European health report released Tuesday by the World Health Organization.

Europeans added more than a year to their average lifespan over the course of five years: from 76.7 years in 2010 to 77.8 in 2015, according to the data. The latter number is subject to change as not all countries have reported data.

"People live longer, life expectancies are increasing, and premature mortality is falling -- and that, of course, is a great health message," said Dr. Claudia Stein, who oversaw the report as director of the Division of Information, Evidence, Research and Innovation at the WHO Regional Office for Europe.

"We're seeing it in practically all countries" in the region, she added, but "we're not seeing it equally in all countries."

The data show large gaps between some countries. For example, the average person in Luxembourg, which had the greatest life expectancy in 2015, lives to be about 83, while in Moldova, which had the lowest, it's not quite 72 -- a difference of about 11.4 years.

Women in the region also live 6.6 years longer than men, averaging 81.2 and 74.6 years, respectively.

Boosts in life expectancy have come alongside other good news: Maternal and infant mortality are down in recent years, and some countries have some of the highest "life satisfaction" in the world, to name a couple.

But Stein remains concerned that health risks, like the high prevalence of overweight and smoking across the region, could stall or even backpedal on these gains in some countries.

"And it is important not to forget them, because they may one day mean that we are no longer the longest-living region," Stein said.

'World champions in drinking'

Europe has exceeded its goal of lowering premature deaths from cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and chronic respiratory disease by 1.5% per year until 2020, according to the report, which is published every three years.

But smokers make up a third of all Europeans above age 15, and rates of alcohol consumption, while decreasing, remain among the highest in the world, the report says.

"We still have -- and this is a very unfortunate record -- very high rates of alcohol consumption," Stein said. "We are basically the world champions in drinking."

Stein is also concerned about "outbreaks of measles in several countries. Kids have died of a disease that we had hoped would be eliminated soon."

Some countries have had problems keeping vaccines in stock, as in Ukraine due to civil unrest, Stein explained. On the other hand is the impact of "vaccine deniers" who do not vaccinate their children, she added.

"While there is overall good vaccine acceptance in Europe, there are clear trends reflecting more questioning about vaccines," Heidi Larson, an anthropologist and director of the Vaccine Confidence Project and associate professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, previously told CNN.

In a 2015 report, Larson and her colleagues found that "vaccine-safety related sentiment is particularly negative in the European region" and that "countries with high levels of schooling and good access to health services are associated with lower rates of positive sentiment, pointing to an emerging inverse relationship between vaccine sentiments and socio-economic status."

Stein noted, "this is something where we have seen an improvement in recent years, but not enough."

'We are getting larger'

More than half of Europeans are overweight, and that number is rising in much of the region, the new report illustrates.

"And when we look at children, we see trends that are really, really alarming," Stein said.

The countries with the highest prevalence of overweight among adolescents were Greenland and Greece, where nearly 40% of 11-year-old boys are overweight or obese, based on 2014 data. Ireland, Denmark and the Netherlands were among the lowest in the region, around or under 15%.

"When I was a child, we had one kid in the class that was perhaps chubby," but now it's almost half in some countries, Stein said.

"As a region, we are getting larger."

This year, another WHO report indicated that in some southern European countries -- Italy, Malta and Spain, to name a few -- about one in five boys was obese, and rates of obesity among girls were only slightly lower. This is more than twice the prevalence in northern European countries such as Denmark, France, Ireland, Latvia and Norway, where rates of obesity in boys and girls ranged between 5% and 9%, according to that report.

"We believe it is due to the loss of the traditional Mediterranean diet patterns in the south [and] to the increased intake of sugars and energy-dense foods combined with particularly low levels of physical activity," Dr. João Breda, head of the WHO European Office for Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases, previously told CNN.

The Mediterranean diet is typically characterized by a high intake of plant-based foods and olive oil; a moderate intake of fish and poultry; a low intake of dairy products, red meat and sweets; and a moderate intake of wine, according to WHO.

"There are changes in the food system -- more artificial foods, more processed foods, foods with additives, salt, sugar, et cetera -- and that's an issue worldwide," according to Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Global Obesity Prevention Center, who was not involved in the WHO reports.

"There's also decreasing physical activity that's occurring. We're currently in the middle of a physical inactivity epidemic, or pandemic, because people have more sedentary lives," Lee told CNN in May.

Experts have also linked changes in diet to income and poverty in some countries.

"In times when childhood obesity has risen, there has been a disproportionate rise among lower-income neighborhoods and lower-income populations," Lee said. "Many low-income populations have poor access to healthy foods, because if you think about it, living a healthy lifestyle can cost money."

Stein said the rise in obesity is a "global problem," but countries can encourage healthy and active lives with good health information, legislation and taxes -- such as the UK's "sugar tax" on soft drinks.

"There's not one single intervention that you could say ... was the magic bullet," she said.

Stein added that many of the health trends outlined in the new report are the sum of many factors, including cultural differences and men's willingness to seek out health care, which will be addressed in upcoming reports. She said that Europe is unique among the WHO regions in how it's going beyond the numbers to try to unravel why some places are healthier than others -- conducting interviews and relying on experts like social scientists to tell them what statistics can't.

"People are people. They have culture; they have views; they have concepts," Stein said. "And we need to make sure that we grasp that ... when we really want to enhance the well-being of the population."

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