J Epidemiol Community Health 56:253-258 doi:10.1136/jech.56.4.253
  • Research report

Health inequalities by education and age in four Nordic countries, 1986 and 1994

  1. K Silventoinen,
  2. E Lahelma
  1. Department of Public Health, University of Helsinki, Finland
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr K Silventoinen, Division of Epidemiology, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota, Suite 300, 1300 South Second Street, Minneapolis, MN 55454-1015, USA;
  • Accepted 11 September 2001


Study objective: To compare the age pattern of educational health inequalities in four Nordic countries in the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s.

Design: Cross sectional interview surveys at two points of time.

Setting: Data on self reported limiting longstanding illness, and perceived health were collected from Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden in 1986/87 and in 1994/95.

Participants: Representative samples of the non-institutionalised population at 15 years or older. Analyses were restricted to respondents aged between 25 and 75 (n= 23 325 men and 24 184 women). Response rates varied from 73% to 87%.

Main results: The age adjusted prevalence of limiting longstanding illness in Finland was 10% higher in men and 6% higher in women than in other Nordic countries in 1986/87 but the gap narrowed by 1994/95. Educational health inequalities were largest in Norway. In 1986/87 the odds ratio (OR) for limiting longstanding illness was 11.25 (95% CI 8.66 to 14.62) among men and 8.23 (95% CI 6.60 to 10.27) among women in the oldest age group (65–74 years old) in Finland when the youngest age group (25–34 years old) was used as the reference category (OR=1.00). The age pattern in Finland was steeper than in Sweden (OR=5.02, 95% CI 3.97 to 6.34 in men and 5.29, 95% CI 4.18 to 6.71 in women) or Norway (OR=6.32, 95% CI 4.06 to 9.84 and 5.45, 95% CI 3.81 to 7.82, respectively). In 1994/95 relative health improved in the oldest age group in Finland (OR=5.80, 95% CI 4.33 to 7.78 in men and 5.94, 95% CI 4.52 to 7.79 in women) and in Norway (OR=4.55, 95% CI 3.01 to 6.88 and 3.96, 95% CI 2.70 to 5.81, respectively) but remained stable in Sweden. The study compared health differences by age in different educational categories and found that in Finland in 1986/87 the health in the oldest age group was poorer for secondary (OR=10.59, 95% CI 5.96 to 18.82) or basic educated (OR=9.76, 95% CI 6.66 to 14.30) men than for men with higher education (OR=5.15, 95% CI 2.59 to 10.22). The difference was not found among women or in other Nordic countries and it diminished among men in Finland in 1994/95. The results of perceived health were broadly similar to the above results of limiting longstanding illness.

Conclusion: The results suggest that compared with other Nordic countries the comparatively poorer health in Finland is partly attributable to a cohort effect. This may be associated with the lower standard of living in Finland that lasted until the mid-1950s. The cohort effect is also likely to contribute to educational health inequalities among older Finnish men. The results suggest that not only current social policies but also past economic circumstances are likely to affect the overall health status as well as health inequalities.