Publication date: 
November 20, 2019

Icelandic females and Swedish males live longest; Greenland’s males and females the shortest

Males in Denmark and Finland experience greater heath loss from alcohol use than their Nordic peers


SEATTLE – It’s no secret that residents of the five Nordic countries live longer and healthier lives than the global average, yet subtle – but consequential – health differences remain, likely the result of alcohol use, smoking, and other risk factors, according to a new scientific study.

“Smoking and alcohol use are among the risk factors that vary most in size of disease burden between the Nordic countries,” said Dr. Ann Kristin Knudsen, senior author on the study and researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

Published today in the international medical journal The Lancet Public Health, the study is the first of its kind to analyze sex differences in life expectancy and disease burden across Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, and Greenland (the Danish autonomous territory). A part of the annual Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study, the results are based on nearly 4,000 Nordic sources.

Among the six locations studied, Icelandic females and Swedish males live the longest, with life expectancies of 85.9 and 80.8 years, respectively. Conversely, Greenland’s males (70.8 years) and females (77.2 years) have the shortest life expectancies.

The analysis reveals that Greenland’s much lower life expectancy and higher disease burden stand in sharp contrast to the other Nordic countries studied. This disparity can be attributed in part to poorer socioeconomic conditions in Greenland, as well as greater obesity, smoking, adverse childhood conditions, and a higher risk of accidents.

Despite substantial commonality in life expectancy and disease burden, Knudsen and coauthors found that people in Nordic nations also face country-specific health challenges. For example, males in Denmark and Finland face higher disease burden from alcohol use, while both males and females in Denmark also have more health problems from smoking.

The researchers suggest Denmark and Finland could see potential health gains by adopting the public health strategies of neighboring Iceland, Norway, and Sweden.

“While we share similar economies, welfare systems, and health care, the Nordic countries have much to learn from each other on how to address major risk factors such as alcohol, smoking, obesity, and high blood pressure,” said Dr. Stein Emil Vollset, a Norwegian co-author on the study and professor of Global Health at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine. “These risks are likely driving differences in ill health nation-by-nation, so Nordic countries must look to their neighbors and adapt proven interventions to their local needs.”

The study is entitled “Life expectancy and disease burden among males and females in the Nordic countries: Results from the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries and Risk Factors Study 2017 (GBD 2017).”


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About the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) is an independent global health research organization at the University of Washington that provides rigorous and comparable measurement of the world’s most important health problems and evaluates the strategies used to address them. IHME is committed to transparency and makes this information widely available so that policymakers have the evidence they need to make informed decisions on allocating resources to improve population health.


About the Global Burden of Disease study

The Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study is the largest and most comprehensive effort to quantify health loss across places and over time. It draws on the work of more than 4,300 collaborators from 146 countries and territories. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation coordinates the study. The GBD 2017 study was published in November 2018 and includes more than 38 billion estimates of 359 diseases and injuries and 84 risk factors in 195 countries and territories from 1990 to 2017.