03/12/2013 08:01 pm ET Updated May 13, 2013

Europeans On A Whole Are Getting Healthier -- But Major Disparities Still Exist, WHO Says

By Kate Kelland

LONDON, March 13 (Reuters) - Europeans can expect to live longer and their overall health has improved in recent years, but "unjust" health inequalities persist between men and women, East and West and rich and poor, the World Health Organisation said on Wednesday.

In an update on the 53 countries in its European region, the United Nations health body said its 900 million people were living longer and healthier lives, with average life expectancy increasing by five years since 1980 to reach 76 years in 2010.

This was mainly due to decreases in some causes of death, such as road accidents and maternal mortality, and to efforts to reduce some health risks and improve socioeconomic conditions in the region, which for the WHO stretches across the EU to central Asia.

"But there are persistent and widespread inequities in health across the region, which in some cases are worsening," said Zsuzsanna Jakab, the WHO's regional director for Europe.

"These are unnecessary and unjust and must be a priority for us to address collectively," she said.

The WHO's European health report, issued every three years, showed the leading health risk factors for Europeans today include tobacco and alcohol use, with alcohol accounting for an estimated 6.5 percent of all deaths, and some 27 percent of the adult population smoking.

So-called non-communicable, or chronic, diseases such as heart disease, and cancer account for 80 percent of deaths, with cardiovascular diseases the cause of about 50 percent of deaths and cancer accounting for around 20 percent.

And while infectious diseases kill fewer people, some "remain a concern" - particularly tuberculosis, HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, the report said.

It also found that while life expectancy for women in the region reached an average of 80 years in 2010, for men it was only 72.5 years. And premature death rates, although falling overall, vary considerably across the region, with the highest rates in eastern part and the lowest in western countries.

"The good news is that overall mortality from all causes is continuing to decline in the European region," said Ritu Sadana, one of the co-authors of the report who presented its findings at a briefing in London. "But what's very important...is that national averages continue to show a huge inequality across the region - particularly an east-west divide.

"Inequalities really have become a hallmark of European health," she added.

Cancer deaths, for example, while accounting for around 20 percent of deaths in the region as whole, ranged from 5 percent of deaths in some countries to more than 30 percent in others.

"In fact cancer has replaced cardiovascular disease as the leading cause of premature deaths - that's before the age of 65 - in 28 of the 53 countries," Sadana said.

On the upside, Europe has the lowest child mortality rates in the world, at 7.9 per 1,000 live births, after a 54 percent reduction in infant death rates between 1990 and 2010. Here again, though, rates "vary strikingly" between countries, the report said.

Maternal mortality, or death of women in childbirth, fell by 50 percent after 1990, to 13.3 per 100,000 live births in 2010. And death from transport accidents fell by 50 percent after 1990, related to a drop in road accidents, particularly those involving alcohol. (Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Michael Roddy)