Health For Members

EXPLAINED: Why Spain has the lowest death rate in the EU

Fiona Govan
Fiona Govan - [email protected]
EXPLAINED: Why Spain has the lowest death rate in the EU
An old man reading the newspaper on a bench in Spain. Photo: AFP

New Eurostat confirms that Spain has the lowest annual mortality rate in the European Union, so what makes Spain such a healthy place to live?


Is the Mediterranian diet? The brilliant free health service? Or simply that the Spaniards are made of sturdier stuff than their fellow Europeans.

The Local takes a look. 

So what do the figures mean: 

Every year, Eurostat, the statistics agency of the European Union, produces a report based on data collected in each EU nation to compare standards of living, healthcare etc.

This report reveals that Spain has just 829 deaths for every 100,000 inhabitants, a figure that is the lowest of all the 28 member states and well below the EU average of 1,002 

Just behind Spain in the low mortality rate stakes is France (838 for every 100,000), Italy (843) and Malta (882). The highest rates were found in Bulgaria (1,600), Latvia and Romania (tied at 1,476).


Photo: monkeybusiness/Depositphotos

What are Spanish people dying of? 

The biggest killer in Spain is cardiovascular disease, followed by cancer, a trend that is replicated across the EU except in Denmark, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, where the biggest killed is cancer. 

 A different study the Global Burden of Disease study in Spain (GBD), exploring deeper into the causes of death in Spain revealed that of the 418,516 people who died in 2016,  80 percent were aged 70 years or older. 

 Non-communicable diseases were the cause in 92.8 percent of cases, accidents in 3.6 percent, and infectious diseases in 3.5 percent.

 Breaking it down even further, we discover that the five main causes of death in Spain are, ischaemic heart disease, which accounted for 14.6 percent of all deaths, Alzheimer disease and other dementias (13.6 percent), stroke (7.1 percent), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) (6.9 percent) and lung cancer (5 percent).

Data from Global Burden of Disease study in Spain (GBD) 

High life expectancy 

Clearly connected to the low mortalitiy rate is the fact that Spain has the highest life expectancy at birth among European Union nations and is expected to overtake Japan by 2040 to become the country with highest lifespan in the world.

With a projected average lifespan of nearly 85.8 years, Spain -- formerly in 4th place -- will dethrone Japan, which sits atop the rankings today with a lifespan of 83.7 years, and will drop to 2nd place in 2040.

Mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean diet is routinely held responsible for Spain's high ranking on the health and life expectancy lists. 

Researchers say eating habits may provide clues to health levels enjoyed by Spain and other countries in southern Europe as a “Mediterranean diet, supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil or nuts, had a lower rate of major cardiovascular events than those assigned to a reduced-fat diet,” according to a study led by the University of Navarra Medical School.

Public healthcare

A huge part of Spain's appearance at the top of the rankings is thanks to the free public healthcare enjoyed by 99.8 percent of the Spanish population, two points above the OECD average, according to El Pais newspaper.

And even though austerity measures during Spain's economic crisis saw the health budget cut, its healthcare professionals and access to services remain among the best in the world,  with Spain ranked eighth in the world for its standard of healthcare, out of 195 countries. 

"Primary care is essentially provided by public providers, specialized family doctors and staff nurses, who provide preventive services to children, women and elderly patients, and acute and chronic care," according to the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies 2018 review of Spain.

Photo: pressmaster/Depositphotos

World's best organ donation record 

Part of the outstanding healthcare record is the fact that Spain has been the world leader in organ donation for the last 25 years and consistently breaks its own record for the number of transplants carried out. 

A total of 4,818 organ transplants were carried out in Spain during 2016, beating the record of 4,769 from the year before, according to data published by  the National Transplant Organization (ONT). 

It means that Spain saw 43.4 individual donors per million people (pmp) in 2016, an increase from 39.7 pmp in 2015 and 36 pmp in 2014, "much higher" than the EU average (19.6) and the US average (26.6) according to stats published by Spain's Health Ministry.

Spain has maintained its gold standard in organ donation despite deep austerity cuts which saw public spending on health slashed during the economic crisis years.

Fewer dying on the roads

The studies show the areas where Spain has made huge improvements in recent years. Legislation to improve safety, road safety campaigns and general improvement of the roads and policing means far fewer people are dying in traffic accidents. 

Data reveals that traffic accidents fell to 32nd place on the list of causes of death in 2016, a huge shift from from 1990, when accidents appeared in 8th position on the list. 

Decrease in smoking

Photo: Pedro Armestre/AFP

Although lung cancer is still the number one fatal cancer in Spain findings reveal that things are improving. Smoking bans in restaurants, bars, and the work place as well as public health campaigns has led to a substantial decrease in smoking in the Spanish population.

Between 1980 and 2016, the number of men who smoked dropped from a whopping 41 percent to 26 percent, while women smokers dropped from 21 percent to 17 percent.

Trouble ahead? 

However, Spain shouldn't be too complacent. 

Experts warn of an obesity crisis in Europe of "enormous proportions", and that is expected to hit Spain too with 80 percent of Spanish men and 55 percent of Spanish women predicted to be overweight by 2030.

"More work needs to be done to control risk factors such as alcohol abuse and to further reduce smoking, particularly among adolescents, and overweight and obesity in children," warned Dr. Joan B Soriano, associate professor at the Autonomous University of Madrid and Hospital La Princesa and coordinator of the GBD study in Spain.

READ ALSO: Secret to long life? Spaniard lived to 107 on 'red wine diet' 



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