Number of the Month: 28 years

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East and West Berliners celebrating on top of the Berlin Wall

Something that many people had been desperately yearning for finally happened on 9 November 1989: the German Democratic Republic (GDR) opened the inner German border. Thousands of people poured into the West. They could not believe their luck, as they had not been permitted to cross the border into the West for decades. Many families had been torn apart by the division of Germany. 327 people died attempting to escape to West Germany.

Older and healthier

Today, 28 years on, there are still differences between "East" and "West" in terms of economic power, the unemployment rate and voting behaviour. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in the north German city of Rostock have been studying how the two previously separate societies developed – and have arrived at an astounding conclusion: life expectancy of people from the former GDR has risen enormously since reunification. On average, they live six to eight years longer than in 1990. Rostock sociologist Tobias Vogt believes that this is due among other things to better health care and higher pensions.

"Improved medical expertise and technical equipment have played a key part in the rising life expectancy of people from East Germany after reunification. For example, the scope for treating cardiovascular diseases there was rather limited pre-1990", explains Vogt. This has benefited East German men in particular. Although they still have the lowest life expectancy of anyone in Germany, reaching just 77.05 years on average, statistically they are living nearly eight years longer than during the GDR era. By way of comparison, men living in West Germany reach an average age of 78.38.

New attitude towards life

More comfort and convenience have also improved life for people in the former GDR, says Tobias Vogt. Things that West Germans had already taken for granted before reunification made everyday life easier for many East Germans after the Berlin Wall came down. "If you look at photographs taken back then you can see that the infrastructure of cities had completely deteriorated. Even more minor changes have played a role for older people. For example, they no longer had to lug coal up from the cellar to heat their flats or houses but could simply turn up the heating instead."

A new attitude towards life after the collapse of the Berlin Wall may be another reason why people are living longer. Young people in particular suddenly had the chance to choose how they lived their lives – something that was inconceivable in socialist East Germany. "Researchers from the Netherlands discovered that people in democracies live longer than those in dictatorships", says Vogt. "This finding also appears to apply to German reunification." In this respect too, the fall of the Berlin Wall was very much a fortunate event in Germany’s history.

Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research

The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock is one of the largest demographic research bodies in Europe. Researchers at the MPIDR explore issues such as demographic change, various aspects of ageing and gender differences in terms of a population’s health.