Abstract Data and methods

1. Introduction

Mortality patterns in Germany are an intriguing subject for social scientists. The recent German history offers a unique opportunity to study the effects of political, economic and social factors on mortality changes. Prior to 1945 East and West Germans shared a cultural and historical background that included the political system. Between 1949 and 1989, however, East and West Germans lived under different political and economic systems, a socialist planned economy (East Germany) versus a free-market democracy (West Germany). With German reunification in 1990 the two German populations were again integrated into one political and economic system.

The purpose of this study is to examine recent trends in old age mortality in Germany. We consider the period from 1970 to 1996, and we present mortality indicators separately for the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and the former Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). The paper addresses two issues. First, we examine whether and to what degree increases in life expectancy were determined by increased survival at older ages. Secondly, we provide a detailed description of recent trends in mortality among the oldest old (ages 80+). In this context it is of interest to determine whether the changes associated with German reunification in 1990 altered any of the long-term trajectories of oldest old mortality.

Previous research indicated that life expectancy was somewhat different in East and West Germany. Immediately after the war, mortality was higher in East Germany than in West Germany [Scholz 1996]. However, this pattern changed quickly. By the early 1950s, mortality in East Germany had reached the pre-war level and, subsequently, even fell somewhat below West German figures. With regard to the male population, a slight East German lead lasted until the mid 1970s. Mortality for women was about the same in both German states from the early 1950s until the early 1970s.

As of about 1970 mortality trends in East and West Germany diverged (see Figure 1). Life expectancy at birth in East Germany increased with a low gradient for both sexes, while life expectancy in West Germany rose more rapidly. With the collapse of the socialist regime in 1989 and German reunification one year later, life expectancy in East Germany began to increase at an accelerated pace. The increase in life expectancy was more pronounced for females than for males. However, this general trend towards increased life expectancy was accompanied by a temporary set-back for men. Detailed analyses indicated that male life expectancy actually declined in East Germany immediately before and after reunification. For males, the 1989 level was not reached again until 1992. This short peak in mortality was due to higher death rates in men aged 15 to 65 [Häussler, Hempel, and Reschke 1995, Dorbritz and Gärtner 1995]. Older age groups did not experience a similar increase in death rates. Mortality for these older age groups continued to decrease gradually [Häussler, Hempel, and Reschke 1995, Schott, Bergmann, and Wiesner 1995].

Demographers have documented the remarkable increases in survival at older ages in developed countries. During the 20th century death rates at older ages have fallen dramatically in many European countries [Kannisto et al. 1994, Vaupel 1997]. Mortality decreases have been more pronounced for females than males, and the pace of decline has been more rapid in recent decades than it was in earlier decades. One goal of the present study was to explore whether similar trends can also be observed for the two German states.

In sum, the present study focuses on trends in old age mortality in Germany. In a first step we examine the contribution of different age groups to changes in life expectancy, separately for the two German states and for different time periods (prior to, during, and after reunification). Our goal was to evaluate whether and to what degree increases in life expectancy were determined by increased survival at older ages. In a second step we investigate changes in oldest old mortality (ages 80+) for the period between 1955 and 1996, again separately for the two German states. Utilizing Lexis maps [Andreev 1999, Vaupel et al. 1998] we present death rates for each age (80 to 99) and each year (1955 to 1996). Our goal was to obtain a detailed description of trends in old age mortality in Germany in recent decades, and to assess whether these trends were altered by German reunification. In the final section we discuss potential determinants of old age mortality in Germany, with an emphasis on medical and nursing care, individual economic resources, and life-style factors.


Abstract Data and methods

Old-Age Mortality in Germany prior to and after Reunification
Arjan Gjonça, Hilke Brockmann, Heiner Maier
© 2000 Max-Planck-Gesellschaft ISSN 1435-9871