More people live to be 100 in Switzerland than anywhere else in Europe, and the country is one of the world leaders in the longevity stakes, reveals research in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

Life expectancy in developed nations has more than doubled over the past two centuries, and among women it has risen three months every year for the past 160 years in some countries. On the present evidence, average life expectancy should reach 100 within the next 60 years in the developed world.

But Switzerland has some of the highest numbers of “old old,” according to an analysis of census, population, and death statistics for the period between 1860 and 2001.

The researchers discovered that apart from a dip in 1918, when influenza killed thousands of people, overall life expectancy at birth increased by 98% for men and by 96% for women between 1860 and 2001.

But life expectancy in older age has also risen. Life expectancy at age 60 shot up by 81% in men, and by 109% in women, while life expectancy at age 80 rose by 73% in men and by 106% in women.

Most of the increase has occurred since 1950, with women benefiting more than men.

When the researchers looked at the yearly maximal age at death?the oldest age recorded in a given calendar year?they found that this was 102 between 1880 and 1920, rising to 104 between 1920 and 1960. By 2001 it was 110.

The numbers of people aged 90 and older tripled between pre-1900 and 1900 to 1945. In 2000, there were 47,000 people in this age group?a 25-fold increase.

In 2000, 796 people were aged 100 or older in Switzerland. The likelihood of reaching 100 rose from 1.5 per 10,000 births in 1860 to 38.6 by 1900.

Most of the increase in longevity has come from the fall in deaths after the age of 80. Three out of four female centenarians died in 1960; by 2000, the death rate among this group was just over one in three.

Relative to other European countries, Switzerland has suffered fewer major disasters, such as war over the past 150 years, but this is unlikely to be the only explanation for the long life expectancy enjoyed by the Swiss, say the authors. Improved wealth, nutrition, sanitation and healthcare are all likely to have played their part.

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[Nonagenarians and centenarians in Switzerland, 1860-2001: a demographic analysis
J Epidemiol Community Health 2005; 59: 31-37]