Chronic diseases cost EU economies €115bn per year and cause more than half a million people to die early, says a new report.
The Health at a Glance: Europe 2016 document from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and European Commission (EC) says that while life expectancy has now reached a record 80 years-plus - a rise of six years compared to 1990 - that is "not always matched by healthy life years" and there are huge inequalities between and within countries.
Gaps in life expectancy are stark between the least and most educated, the poorest and richest, and between countries, says the report. On average across EU countries, the life expectancy of people with the lowest level of education is seven years shorter than for the most educated. The gap is particularly large in Central and Eastern European countries, and especially for men.
Meanwhile some countries ─ including the UK, Ireland and certain Central and Eastern European countries ─ continue to lag behind in terms of cancer survival rates.
The report calls for "better public health and prevention policies as well as more effective health care [which] could save hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of euros each year in Europe".
All told, 50 million people in the EU are afflicted by chronic diseases such as diabetes, congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma, and in 2013 more than 1.2m people died from avoidable illnesses, it says.
Among the key causes causes? One in five adults in Europe are smokers despite progress in reducing tobacco consumption, while a similar proportion are heavy drinkers and one in six are obese, up from one in nine in 2000.
Further investment in prevention, along with measures making it easier for people with disabilities to work, would bring significant economic and social benefits in EU countries. Member states currently allocate only around 3% on average of their health budgets to public health and prevention, pointed out OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria in a speech introducing the new report.
Meanwhile, pressure on health budgets is increasing, and public demand for new and expensive technologies that offer better and earlier diagnoses and treatment options is growing, added Gurria.
"Achieving further efficiency gains in hospital, pharmaceutical spending, administration and other health spending items will be critical to managing these pressures with limited resources," he said.
Access to healthcare can also be a factor. While most EU countries have almost universal coverage, there are shortfalls – Cyprus, Greece, Bulgaria and Romania still had more than 10% of their populations not regularly covered for healthcare costs in 2014.
The next step in the joint OCED/EC project is to produce country health profiles of all 28 EU countries highlighting the particular characteristics and challenges of each of them, by November 2017.