International migration influences life expectancy in four Nordic countries

Diet and lifestyle 8. nov 2022 3 min Researcher and Docent Matthew Wallace Written by Kristian Sjøgren

Since 1990, international migration to Denmark, Norway and Finland has increased the life expectancy in each country. Sweden, however, showed an initial decrease and a recent increase, and these trends can be used as a knowledge base within health and social policy.

How long can the average member of a population be expected to live?

This question is essential for many political decision-making processes and affects the healthcare system, pension funds and many other institutions.

A recent study reveals new figures on how international migrants influence life expectancy in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden and about health status in these countries.

Overall, the research shows that international migration to Denmark, Finland and Norway has increased life expectancy in each country since 1990 but has reduced it in Sweden in the long term.

However, the research also provides a possible reason why this trend has now reversed in Sweden.

“International migrants have normally been considered a separate and independent population, and their health has also been addressed separately. Today, however, there is a need to better understand the life expectancy and health of international migrants because they comprise an increasingly larger part of the population in the Nordic countries. Finding out how these migrants affect life expectancy in the various countries is therefore important,” explains a researcher behind the study, Matthew Wallace, Researcher and Docent, Department of Sociology, Stockholm University, Sweden.

The research has been published in Social Science & Medicine Population Health.

Increasing share of migrants in the Nordic countries

The researchers used existing data for sex, country of birth, deaths and births for four Nordic countries from 1990 to 2019.

The researchers compared the life expectancy of migrants with the life expectancy of native-born people and determined how migrants affect overall life expectancy in each country.

“The share of migrants in the four countries is increasing, and today they comprise one fifth of Sweden’s population and less for the other countries,” says Matthew Wallace, who also points out that the research only covered the people born in another country and not the descendants of international migrants.

International migrants increase life expectancy by 2.5 months

Since 1990, international migrants have increasingly enhanced life expectancy in Denmark, Finland and Norway. The largest effect was found in Norway, with international migrants increasing life expectancy by 2 months for men and 2.5 months for women.

The researchers contextualised their study by using data for other countries. For example, in the United States, international migration has increased life expectancy by a full year.

In Sweden, however, the situation differs, and from 1990 until 2019 international migration reduced the life expectancy of the general population.

This reduction of life expectancy started at 2.5 months in 1990 but has waned over time and reversed to a modest positive effect in 2019.

Matthew Wallace says that there is constant debate as to why international migrants generally increase life expectancy.

He explains that one reason is probably that many countries from which the migrants come, such as those in the Middle East, have a healthier lifestyle with good diets, less alcohol use and less smoking.

In addition, many international migrants, whether they come from the Middle East, Asia, South America or other countries in Europe, are a selective group based on health and other health-related factors, such as more education, which tends to increase life expectancy.

“There could also be errors in the data. My research has previously shown that it is not always documented whether international migrants move again from countries or not. If these movements are not recorded, we do not know whether these migrants are dead, and therefore they may appear to just keep living and getting very old, even though they may have died elsewhere. This may explain some of the increase in overall life expectancy but not all. Given how much international migration influences life expectancy in a country, understanding the true level of error becomes important. We are working on this right now,” explains Matthew Wallace.

International migrants in Sweden reduced life expectancy

Matthew Wallace thinks that the reason international migrants reduced life expectancy in Sweden from the 1990s to 2019 is the type of international migrants who came to Sweden in large numbers in the 1950s and 1960s.

At that time, the economy was booming in Sweden, and demand for unskilled labour from abroad was high.

During this period, many people moved from Finland to Sweden, and they brought lower life expectancy, which has affected life expectancy in Sweden ever since.

“Over time, however, the composition of international migrant populations by origin in Sweden has changed from being primarily intra-Nordic to comprising many international migrants from, Iran, Iraq, Syria and the European Union, and they have higher life expectancy. Another study that has not yet been published shows that this may explain the trend in Sweden,” says Matthew Wallace.

He elaborates that the study’s conclusions will probably be interesting for social and health policy-makers and will improve understanding of future life expectancy in each country and how increased globalisation affects this.

“The discussion of how international migrants affect life expectancy in each country needs to incorporate international migrants more centrally into a broader understanding of population health, since they comprise a large and increasing share of the population in many countries and therefore have much greater influence in social and health care than they have had in the past,” concludes Matthew Wallace.

Immigration, mortality, and national life expectancy in the Nordic region, 1990–2019” has been published in Social Science & Medicine Population Health. The Novo Nordisk Foundation awarded grants to co-author Laust Hvas Mortensen for the projects Big Life-course Data Analytics for Understanding Disease Initiation and Progression in Diabetes and its Complications (2017) and Harnessing the Power of Big Data to Address the Societal Challenge of Ageing (2018).

I am a researcher and docent in demography at the Stockholm University Demography Unit and Department of Sociology. I am the Principal Investigator of...

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