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ROME (Reuters) - The number of babies born in Italy hit a record low in 2016, the population shrank and the average age crept higher, national statistics office ISTAT said on Monday.
Births dropped by 12,000 to 474,000 last year, the lowest level since the unification of Italy in 1861, while deaths totalled 608,000, ISTAT said.
The average Italian is now 44.9 years old, up 0.2 years from 2015, while some 22.3 percent of the population is over 65, the highest ratio in the 28-nation European Union.
The total population fell by some 86,000 to 60.58 million, with new migrants helping to offset the falling birth rate.
ISTAT said fertility rates fluctuated wildly between the industrialised north and the poorer south.
On the island of Sardinia, women had 1.07 children on average, while the only province where births rose was in Bolzano, near the border with Austria, where the fertility rate was 1.78.
If applied to the whole country, Bolzano's figures would put Italy among the most fertile countries in the European Union, ISTAT said, whereas with Sardinia's rate, "dangerously close to one child per woman, Italy would be in last place in Europe, and likely the world."
The overall national average was 1.34 children per woman.
Consumer group Codacons blamed families' finances for the fall in births, saying in a statement that people struggled with rises in the cost of food, prams and nurseries.
"The uncertainty and general impoverishment among the middle class in Italy in recent years has made it ever more difficult for families to bring a child into the world," the group said.
Meanwhile, the number of Italians moving abroad rose 12.6 percent year-on-year to 115,000, almost triple the rate of six years ago.
Reporting by Isla Binnie; Editing by Ken Ferris