How Does Italy's North-South Divide Impact Life Expectancy?

Milan, in the wealthy north | © harmish khambhaita/Flickr
Milan, in the wealthy north | © harmish khambhaita/Flickr
Photo of Emma Law
Hub Writer21 February 2018

Despite the pizza, pasta and calorie-laden gelato, Italy has long been recognised as having one of the oldest populations in the world. Not just known for reaching a ripe old age, Italians have also earned the title of the world’s healthiest people – thanks in part to the benefits of a Mediterranean diet. But do such accolades paint a distorted picture of life in the so-called bel paese? Can all Italians expect to live a long and healthy life?

According to a study published this month by the National Observatory for Italy’s Regional Health, there are profound inequalities between the north and south, as well as between those with a university degree and those without.

The report highlights that a citizen in the northern province of Trentino lives on average three years longer than a compatriot living in the southern region of Campania. Using data from 2016, the study shows men in Campania live 78.9 years and women 83.3. Around 800 kilometres north in Trentino, men reach 81.6 years old and women 86.3.

Naples – the capital of the Campania region | © byrev/Pixabay

The ‘health gap’ is further affirmed by looking at the overall average life expectancy between the historically poor south and the wealthy north. The highest survival rate is recorded in the northeast, where men can expect to live until 81.2 years old and women 85.6.

The figures show that life expectancy for Italians isn’t just affected by place of residence. A low level of education also correlates to a shorter lifespan, with attaining a university degree adding up to five years onto life expectancy in men. Among women the difference is less pronounced, but those with a university degree can still expect to live to 85.9, while those with just primary-school education reach 83.2 years of age.

Education doesn’t just impact longevity either, it also affects quality of life. Less well-educated Italians are more likely to endure poor health, a statistic that increases with age resulting in 23.2% of 45–64-year-olds with only primary-school education stating they suffer from at least one chronic health condition.

Bari in Puglia, southern Italy – on average, people in the south earn half as much as their northern counterparts | © Alan Farhadi/Flickr

The creators of the report, the National Observatory for Italy’s Regional Health, based at the Public Health Institute at the Catholic University in Rome, criticised the country’s health policies.

‘The National Health Service, in addition to protecting health, was created in order to overcome regional imbalances in the nation’s social and health conditions,’ said scientific director Alessandro Solipaca. ‘But on this front the data testifies to the substantial failure of these policies.’

Despite the health gap between graduates and non-graduates, the report emphasised that other countries in Europe actually have more pronounced levels of inequality when it comes to healthcare and education, even in countries where residents must pay for health insurance. The findings put Italy ahead of wealthier countries like Finland, Denmark and Norway.

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