Ben Wilson. Photo: Leila Zoubir/Stockholm University
Ben Wilson. Photo: Leila Zoubir/Stockholm University

“There are two ways of seeing this. On one hand the glass is half full, since people were living longer in 2014 than in 1990 in all regions of both Finland and Sweden. On the other hand the glass is half empty because inequality between regions hasn’t really changed, neither for men nor women”, said Ben Wilson, a researcher at the Department of Sociology and one of the authors of the study, when we spoke to him about this research. 

As the research shows, the differences are not only seen when you compare life expectancy between regions within each country, but also when you compare between regions in Finland and regions in Sweden. 

“We know that life expectancy is improving in most places in the world, due to improvements in healthcare, housing and social progress. Still, certain regions are more deprived than others”, said Ben Wilson. “Health behaviours may be different in different regions, but there are also structural factors like poverty, disadvantage, or economic factors that can lead to shorter life expectancy.”

“The regional perspective often gets missed”

“We can’t just understand inequalities by comparing countries, we need to look beyond that. The regional perspective often gets missed by social scientists. Some researchers even think that in the future, regional differences in health may be larger and more important to study than differences between countries,” said Ben Wilson. 

Although urban areas are generally more advantaged than rural areas in terms of life expectancy, the biggest divide is more of a strictly geographical one, according to the study.

“Regions in the south of Sweden are more advantaged than regions in the north, for both men and women. The region of Kronoberg had the highest average life expectancy in 2014, and Norrbotten, Gävleborg and Västernorrland the lowest. In Finland, the southwest has a higher life expectancy than the northeast, with the Helsinki area somewhere in between”, said Ben Wilson. “Swedish-speaking regions in Finland have also maintained their mortality advantage over Finnish-speaking regions.”  

The life expectancy in Finland has historically been lower than in Sweden in most regions. But over the years studied, 1990-2014, Finnish regions have caught up with Swedish regions in terms of female life expectancy, whereas the same is not true for Finnish men, who still lag behind Swedish men in terms of their average lifespan. 

“This can partly be explained by the fact that men still smoke and drink to a larger extent than women, who have been quicker to give up or decrease these behaviours.”, said Ben Wilson. 

Young adult death more common in disadvantaged regions

Apart from looking at the length of life, Ben Wilson and colleagues have also studied inequality by measuring the variation of the length of people’s lives. The same story is apparent here, with a movement toward greater equality within regions, and a persistent difference between regions, he explained. 

“If you have a greater variation in the length of life, it means that the length of your life is more uncertain. What it can mean is that young adult deaths are more common in certain regions, and these deaths can be caused by everything from accidents to cancer”. 

More about the research

Ben Wilson, Sven Drefahl, Isaac Sasson, Paul M. Henery, Caroline Uggla, “Regional trajectories in life expectancy and lifespan variation: Persistent inequality in two Nordic welfare states”, Population, Space and Place, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/psp.2378

Facts: life expectancy and how the study was done

The study is based upon register data for both Finland and Sweden from the national statistics agencies of the two countries from 1990–2014. The analysis is based upon registered deaths and population counts—by age, sex, region, and year—for the entire population of both countries. All regions in both countries except the relatively small island regions of Gotland and Åland were included. 

Ranking: The regions with the highest and lowest life expectancy in Sweden and Finland

Full table here: Ranking: The regions with the highest and lowest life expectancy in Sweden and Finland (12 Kb)