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One good reason to live in Italy is… February 7, 2008

Posted by dorigo in food, news, science.

food ? Well, maybe, but I had another answer in mind: life expectancy. The new data by ISTAT (the italian institute of statistics) confirms some preconceptions I had: italians live longer, and better, than other europeans.

2007 data on life expectancy in Italy gives 84.1 years for women and 78.6 years for men. I have no access to similarly updated numbers for other european countries, but life expectancy has been following a similar growing trend everywhere, so we can have a look at less updated numbers (dated June 2005) from Eurostat:


In the table, the first column refers to men and the second to women. The third and the fourth are life expectancies at 65 years of age, for men and women respectively. As for the countries: BE is for Belgium; CZ for Czech Republic; DK for Denmark; DE for Germany; EE for Estonia; EL for Greece; ES for Spain; FR for France; IE for Ireland; IT for Italy; CY for Cyprus; LV for Latvia; LT for Lithuania; LU for Luxembourg; HU for Hungary; MT for Malta; NL for the Netherlands; AT for Austria; PL for Poland; PT for Portugal; SI for Slovenia; SK for Slovak Republic; FI for Finland; SE for Sweden; UK for United Kingdom; BG for Bulgaria; RO for Croatia; TR for Romania; IS for Iceland; NO for Norway; and CH for Switzerland.

One clearly sees that Italy does quite well. But even more striking is a table showing the number of years of good health one is expected in european countries. The indicator, called “healthy life years expectancy”, HLYE (also known as “disability-free life expectancy”, DFLE), is a composite attempting to express how much one is expected on average to live without disability. See the table below:

On the DFLE scale, Italy scores way better than other countries! The influence of our better eating habits ? Or is the cause to be sought elsewhere ? Let us look at the incidence of cancer. In the table below are reported the age-standardized rates of incidence of cancer per 100,000 population. The columns indicate rates for men and women in 1995, and men and women in 2002.


Italy does not score well on the table above: cancer has a larger incidence on average in Italy than in Euroland. So let us look at obesity for another hint. The following tables (for men and women, respectively) list the percentage of population with 25<BMI<30 (overweight) and BMI>30 (obese).  BMI, the body-mass index, is a number determined by dividing weight in kilograms by the square of height in meters. The tables clearly show that italians are on average more fit. The first table is for men, the second for women.


In Italy, obese men and women (BMI>30) are a smaller fraction than in other countries, particularly at a young age – 3.8% of men and 2.3% of women are both record lows in Euroland. A casual correlation between life expectancy and obesity ? Of course not. Let us compare the numbers shown above with those in the US, where obesity is a plague and a major cause of mortality. From the site of the NCHS (National Center for Health Statistics) I found this document, which contains the information. One learns that men have a life expectancy of 74.7 years, and women of 80.0 years.

The fraction of men with a BMI>30 in the US is quoted as 29.5% here, and 33.2% for women. And it seems that obesity has little to do with genes, and a lot to do with lifestyle: in fact, the percentage of obese men and women has shown a dramatic increase in the recent years, as the graph above shows.

So, let’s all stop eating junk food! Particularly you. Yes, you. You know I am talking about you. Put that bag of chips down!



1. Tony Smith - February 7, 2008

How about the expected miserable end-time,
that is, the difference between life expectancy and healthy life expectancy ?

Italy is at 76.8 – 70.9 = 5.9 and 82.9 – 74.4 = 8.5
SE is at 77.7 – 62.5 = 15.2 and 82.1 – 62.2 = 19.9
FR is at 75.8 – 60.6 = 15.2 and 83.0 – 63.9 = 19.1

so maybe Swedes and the French can look forward to about 10 years more end-time misery than Italians.

From another point of view, the medical industry will be happy to have the 10 extra years of money-flow from elderly sick Swedes and French.

Even in Italy, it is about 6 or 8 years of end-time ill health,
which is not fun to look forward to
(except for the medical industry).

Tony Smith

2. goffredo - February 7, 2008

Ah, but now three parents can pool together to make a kid. The wonders of modern biology. Some say physicists lost their innocence with the A-bomb. Anyone wish to comment on ethics of biologists? I bet they make more money than any nuclear physicist did. Science so mixed up with big bucks that all kinds of lines are being moved if not crossed.

3. innovatel - February 7, 2008

Are you sure is a good idea to live in Italy? Ok, the italian food is fantastic … it’s the best 🙂

I’m Italian … but I’d like to live in another country (USA – West Coast) … 🙂

Bye 🙂

4. Amara - February 7, 2008

Looking at the numbers for the younger ladies (age 25-34) , Tommaso, I’m not sure that striving to be a velina is a good way to go.

5. amara - February 8, 2008

Thank you Goffredo.. I’ve been meaning to ask you folks, since I saw this at Corriere della Sera. Is Legge 40 really thrown out? I hope for Italy’s sake that those draconic measures are finished..


6. DB - February 8, 2008

The problem with this kind of reasoning is that there are always lots of counterexamples. For example, the increased life expectancy in the US coincides with the increase in obesity. And women +65 are much more likely to be obese than men, but they live a lot longer.
Without the ability to link the data to very precise physiological causal mechanisms which can be tested in longitudinal studies, you are on very shaky scientific ground.
Of course, the Mediterranean diet hypothesis has been around for a long time, but there are others. For example, Hollick et al. believe that the low levels of natural Vitamin D synthesis in sun-starved Northern latitudes can explain at least part of the mortality discrepancies. Is the fact that we have been avoiding sunshine the reason for the jump in cancer rates, or is it the increase in obesity, or is it simply due to the fact that as we live longer we are guaranteed to get more cancer?
What is certain, is that the only intervention known to extend both average and maximum life expectancy in mammals is calorie restriction. This was demonstrated in mice in the 1930s and is the subject of a great deal of current medical research.
So in addition to telling us to eat better, you should tell us to eat less.

PS: Looking at the data, you should tell the Maltese to eat less Maltesers!.

7. dorigo - February 8, 2008

Tony, good point – the difference is shorter in Italy. I do not know whether to make of it a suggestion that our health care is good or bad, though.

Jeff, I agree, there are boundaries, but while it is true that allowing money to define them is crazy, I think it should be the privilege of scientists to guide public opinion on them, rather than this or that religious leader…

Innovatel, life in the US is good, if you have money and a good job. I think the west coast is definitely worth a try. But it is not all roses…

Amara, I’ll try to figure this out when I have a chance.

DB, of course your objection to the method is valid. I in fact was in the mood of using the data as a politician would, rather than a scientist. As for the advice of eating better, for me it is a synonym of eating less!

Cheers all,

8. Andrea Giammanco - February 8, 2008

I don’t think the difference is only due to different dietary habits. Italy has a pretty good health system, and it drives me crazy that the common wisdom, fueled in particular by liberist propaganda, is that italian hospitals are a ruin (although, by far, they could be much better: it would just be sufficient to hire their bosses according to competence and not according to the indications of political parties, see the reason why Mastella’s wife is under investigation.)
The reason why american hospitals are perceived as outstanding and italian hospitals are perceived as a disaster is that the american system is designed to be, to some extent at least, unequal, while the italian system is designed to take care of everybody under any circumstance. This makes a difference at the level of the bulk of the distributions, while the outstanding performances of the outstanding american hospitals have only an effect on a very limited portion of the phase space, i.e. the one related to the healthy people (healthy in the economical sense, but I guess there is a correlation:))
Of course large parts of the society have an interest in americanizing the health system: they would pay less taxes, and they can afford the extra expenses that a more private-centered system would imply, and they don’t care if the life expectancy of the poorest part of the society would change a bit.
My personal taste instead is that, for once, the italian system is preferable.

9. innovatel - February 8, 2008

@dorigo -> Oh yes … I say that … but they are the same problems of the Italy … it is not all roses … for examples … you can see the policts … the problem of Naples … and others 😦

10. Amara - February 8, 2008

Dear Andrea.. Based on my living for five years in Rome area (Frascati), I think that there are large differences between the Italian hospitals. I don’t think I would choose the Italian system over the American system (I prefer the German system, actually) because the waiting time to see a Italian specialist is huge. One year to see an eye doctor? Nine months for an MRI appointment ? (well… cancer victims would be dead…) I discovered, however, that the Italian hospital emergency system actually works, under particular boundary conditions, so that is good to know. I wrote about my experience with Italy’s national health system, with my opinion about the reason for Italians’ long lives here:
(server seems to be down at this moment, but should be back soon).

11. Matteo Martini - February 9, 2008

Hi Tommaso,
I would add that life expectancy in Japan tops life expectancy in Italy.

Japan is the country with the longest life expectancy in the world. Within Japan itself, the longest life expectancy can be found in the Amami Islands, which lie between Kyushu and Okinawa and are part of Kagoshima Prefecture. ..
According to the most recent data from the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, the average life expectancy in Japan was 78.32 years for men and 85.23 for women in 2002.

And overweight Japanese are maybe one percent of the total!!
I have never seen a country with so many slim people!!

Apparently, the correlation [being slim -> live longer] works!!

12. Matteo Martini - February 9, 2008

“for example, the increased life expectancy in the US coincides with the increase in obesity”

If you mean “increase” during time, I do not think that it is fair to make such a comparison, as life expectancy in all the countries of the world has increased during the last 30 years, even in places where there are almost no obese people at all, such as Japan (some African AIDS-plagued countries unfortunately not following this trend).

“And women +65 are much more likely to be obese than men, but they live a lot longer.”

Women live significantly longer than men everywhere, so, again, not a fair point, in my opinion 😉
I still do not understand why this happen (makes me angry that I will probably die 5 years before most women of my age)

Tommaso, sorry for posting two posts in a row..
Just read DB`s comment after

13. dorigo - February 9, 2008

Hi Andrea,
the health system in Italy indeed is harshly criticized from the inside, but it actually works better than it looks. I agree with what you say about the “americanization” which would benefit a large chunk of taxpayers but would create further inequalities. We pay taxes to provide essential rights to those who cannot afford them.

And Amara, indeed waiting times are long, but if your physician deems it appropriate, a simple mark in the relevant box of the exam prescription sheet makes the exam a priority and then you wait one week, not nine months. We do have a problem because in Italy there is a lot of people who love to spend their time in hospitals, being checked at the expense of the health system. But they are a minority, and things are improving in my opinion.

Matteo, good point – yes, Japan is a further example of the benefits of a low-calories diet.


14. Amara - February 9, 2008

a simple mark in the relevant box of the exam prescription sheet makes the exam a priority and then you wait one week, not nine months.

Is this new also since January 1, 2007? Perhaps the doctors early that year didn’t know? My general medico didn’t know about the new 2007 Pronto Soccorso rules when I fainted in early January 2007, and was subsequently booted out of two hospital emergency rooms because my medico didn’t give to me the proper documents (i.e. the story I wrote here: http://lists.extropy.org/pipermail/extropy-chat/2007-May/035815.html) The neurologist that wanted me to have an MRI didn’t write anything special and so the soonest I could get in was 10 months later, as well.
I guess eye appointments are not considered important, everyone I know in italy who wore glasses and who used the public health system for their eye exams waited an average of 6-12 monts for their eye appointments.

15. Ineska - February 25, 2008

Japanese live a long time. Unless they commit suicide, which is not uncommon. Why is Japan so unhappy?

16. Ineska - February 25, 2008

Japan’s grim reputation as one of the world’s suicide nations has been confirmed by statistics that show more than 30,000 people a year have taken their own lives since figures first began to rise in 1998.

Paul Gallagher in Tokyo
The Observer,
Sunday February 24 2008

Tell us Italian man. What are the Japanese killing themselves. Give us your impression and insight through your Gaijin eyes.

17. Ineska - February 25, 2008

Why should one be angry if someone lives a long life?

If you are very concerned with living a long life, then you must do all you can to live in a way that promotes long life.

Science proves that diet, weight, and exercise affect life span.

It can also be said that happiness and contentment are at least equally important to the length of one’s life.

Quality and quantity are necessary.

18. Erik - June 27, 2008

Yea, Italy is a nice country – love nature, people (special the women ;-)) very much. About food well I think all meditaren countries have good and healthy food.

Regards, Erik

la vie est belle 🙂

19. Nick Di Sarlo - July 3, 2008

So is it worth it to make the move to Italy??

20. dorigo - July 3, 2008

Well, I am italian, so I think it is 🙂

If I had to choose freely, however, I would opt to a place with both nice sea and beautiful mountains close by, like california or hawaii.


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