Ireland consistently had some of the worst mortality rates in Europe between 1956 and 1999, particularly among women, new research has shown.
However, major improvements were recorded between 2000 and 2014, according to the findings.
The research was carried out by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) and it focused on mortality rates in 15 EU countries between 1954 and 2014.
It found that throughout the 20th century, Europe recorded big improvements in mortality rates and life expectancy. However, while mortality rates between the 15 European countries studied saw sharp convergence from the mid-1970s, Ireland was slow to converge.
While Ireland's mortality rates matched the 15 EU countries after World War II, between 1956 and 1999, mortality rates from all causes in Ireland were among the highest in these countries.
Mortality rates were particularly high among women. In fact, in every year between 1980 and 1999, female mortality rates in Ireland were the highest among the 15 EU countries.
However, the researchers found that a change then occurred in the 21st century. Between 2000 and 2014, mortality rates in Ireland reduced at a much higher rate than any of the other countries studied.
Mortality rates fell by 34% among men and 32% among women during this time period, compared to an EU average of 28% among men and 24% among women.
The researchers found that for many years between 1960 and 1999, mortality rates for circulatory diseases, such as heart disease and stroke, and respiratory diseases, such as COPD, were highest in Ireland.
However, from the mid-1990s, circulatory disease mortality rates in Ireland converged to the EU average, while respiratory disease mortality rates halved between 2000 and 2014, although the researchers noted that respiratory disease mortality rates In Ireland are still among the highest in the 15 EU countries.
The researchers estimated that improvements in mortality rates here between 2000 and 2014 equate to an estimated 15,300 fewer deaths in 2014. Some 60% of these averted deaths were due to large reductions in mortality from circulatory diseases.
According to the findings, these changes in mortality rates in recent years "reflect a complex interplay of social, economic, institutional, and health factors and it is difficult to untangle the role of each in determining changes in mortality in Ireland".
Previous research has pointed to important public health interventions such as the 2004 smoking ban and improved sanitation, as well as improvements in medical treatments. These have all aided the reduction in mortality, particularly when it comes to circulatory and respiratory diseases.
"It is also clear from international studies that socio-economic improvements result in better health outcomes. Therefore, the dramatic changes to the Irish economic environment that occurred in recent decades, such as higher incomes, educational achievement improvements, higher female employment rates, as well as increased investment in health, are also likely to explain some of the mortality reductions observed in this study," the researchers said.
Their findings are published in the European Journal of Public Health.
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