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News | September 9, 2014

Longer life thanks to reunification

The Over 60s are the main demographic beneficiaries when it comes to gains in life expectancy thanks to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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Had there been no reunification, in 2011 East German men on average would have died 6.2 years earlier than in unified Germany. Women would have lived 4.2 fewer years. These are the results of model calculations by MPIDR-researcher Tobias Vogt.

Had there been no reunification, in 2011 East German men on average would have died 6.2 years earlier than in unified Germany. Women would have lived 4.2 fewer years. These are the results of model calculations done by Tobias Vogt of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock to project the development of life expectancy at birth in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) up to 2011 had the Berlin Wall not fallen. In 2011 a girl born in East Germany would have had a life expectancy of 78.7 years (compared to an actual value of 82.9). A boy would have had the prospect to live 70.9 years (instead of 77.1).

Had the GDR continued to exist (hypothetically), its inhabitants still would have had seen gains in survival, but much fewer so than proven by reality: From 1990 onwards, women would have had added a mere 2.4 years (instead of an actual value of 6.6 years) and men just under ten months (instead of 7.8 years). "The positive impact of reunification on life expectancy in eastern Germany is amazing," says Tobias Vogt. Even in Japan, the world’s record-holder in life expectancy, the values have not increased as rapidly as in eastern Germany after the Wende.

The Over 60s benefited most from the fall of the Berlin Wall

The Over 60s were the main demographic beneficiaries, Vogt found out: Gains in total life expectancy are down to mortality reductions in single age groups. The mortality rate is equivalent to the risk of death at a certain age. Applied to eastern Germany, improvements in infant mortality and survival among people aged up to 40 played but a marginal role, whereas the annual hazard of death decreased considerably among the elderly: “Men aged 40-60 accounted for 30 percent of the survival gains compared to 60 percent for the Over 60s.” The trend is even clearer when we look at women: The female generation 60+ was responsible for 85 percent of the six years gained since the Wende.

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The elderly of the former Federal Republic of Germany, by contrast, had witnessed remarkable improvements in their mortality rates as early as in the 1970s and 1980s, above all resulting from noted reductions in cardiovascular and circulatory mortality as new treatment methods became available.  In the GDR, these had not yet been available in particular to the elderly. The mortality rates remained high and gains made in life expectancy increasingly fell behind West German levels. By 1988, the East-West gap in average life span had widened by almost three years among women and about two and a half years among men.

It was as late as in 1989 that the gap started to narrow – though at different paces between males and females.  In 2011, western German women on average lived just one month longer than their female counterparts in eastern Germany, men from the old Länder were 14 months ahead.  “The East-West gap would have widened further if it hadn’t been for the Wende,” says Tobias Vogt – by up to 4.3 years for women and up to 7.4 years for men.

Single causality unclear

“The rapid mortality and survival improvements in eastern Germany cannot be nailed down to a single cause”, says Tobias Vogt. Above all, they are possibly the result of better medical care, which generally have improved since the Wende. Other health-related factors, such as reductions in environmental pollution or changes in lifestyle, are likely to have played just a minor role, MPIDR-researcher Tobias Vogt believes: Life expectancy in polluted areas began to increase at the same time and as rapidly as in unpolluted areas. And behavioral changes, such as in cigarette consumption, would have affected mortality only in the long-run.

"The eastern German hunt to catch up on life expectancy began almost immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall", says Tobias Vogt. "The gain in survival is thus one of the largest, though often over-looked, achievements of German reunification.”

Note to the editors
This text is not based on a current scientific publication. The model calculations of life expectancy stem from an article published in the Journal of Gerontology (2013), with calculations based on data available up to 2008. The model was recently updated to include the latest available data on 2009 to 2011.

More Information

Tobias Vogt: How many years of life did the fall of the Berlin Wall add? A projection of East German life expectancy, Gerontology (online) (DOI 10.1159/000346355)

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