Facts in praise of older women: Europeans enjoy longer lives

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The Independent Online
JEANNE CALMENT had a lucky escape on Sunday, when fire swept her retirement home. But then over the years she must have had quite a few brushes with mortality: for Jeanne Calment was 118 last month, and is thought to be the oldest person alive. That puts her three years ahead of Charlotte Hughes, who was the oldest person in Britain until she died last week in Redcar, Cleveland.

These are extreme examples, but as a survey published yesterday shows, the European population is getting steadily older. The French have had the largest increase in life expectancy of any European Community nation in the last 30 years, and French women live longer than anybody else in Europe. The new figures come in an EC report which suggests Richard Ingrams has chosen the right market with his magazine the Oldie.

The number of people over 60 in the EC has risen by 50 per cent in the last 30 years to 68.6 million, or 20 per cent of the population. By 2020, there will be between 89 and 100 million people over 60 in the EC, and 17 to 22 million will be 80 or over.

Mr Ingrams' organ might do particularly well in France, where the life expectancy for a 60-year-old woman is 84.2 years, and for a man, 79, the second highest after Greece. In Britain, by contrast, the figures are 81.7 and 77.6. France also has the highest percentage of people over 80 - 3.8 per cent, compared to 3.7 per cent in Britain.

The study shows some distinct regional patterns, with concentrations where more than 22 per cent of the population is over 60. The South of France is one continuous belt of oldies stretching from Cannes to Port Bou, including Arles, where Jeanne Calment lives. There is also a large concentration in south- west France, but rather than providing evidence for the theory that foie gras and red wine promote longevity, this probably has more to do with rural depopulation, as it does in north- west Wales. In Britain there are also concentrations around the retirement communities of Eastbourne and Torbay.

The EC research is part of a project to improve awareness of the problems of the elderly, of which the current Age Concern campaign against ageism is part. As life expectancy rises - by an average of 2 years over the last 30 years - more people are living to enjoy retirement, but often on their own, partly because men die younger than women. More than 50 per cent of women over 80 are living on their own, as against 20 per cent of the men.