"The population variation was even negative in 68 percent of the municipalities and was positive in only one third, in 32 percent," Paula Santana, coordinator of the Centre for Geography and Spatial Planning Studies, told Lusa, pointing out that this is “a more rural than urban phenomenon”.

"The territory is very unequal in the distribution of population density and, speaking only of the continent, there are 20 municipalities with density less than 10 inhabitants per square kilometre," she said.

According to the professor at the University of Coimbra, in Alentejo and Centre there are some rural municipalities that have population densities between four and seven inhabitants, such as Alcoutim, in the district of Faro, as opposed to cities such as Amadora, in the district of Setúbal, which reaches more than seven thousand inhabitants per square kilometre.

Other examples of this low population density are the municipalities of Gavião and Nisa, in the district of Portalegre, Idanha-a-Nova and Penamacor, in Castelo Branco, or Castanheira de Pera, belonging to the district of Leiria.

According to the expert, a “demographic risk” situation is being created in these territories, caused by the loss of residents, which has been accentuated by the emigration of the active population in the last 10 years, the low birth rate and fertility and the increase in average life expectancy, which exceeds 80 years.

“In some rural areas there are almost three seniors for a young person, which is more than double what there is in urban areas. I am not saying that there are people over 65 in absolute numbers in rural areas, but the proportion of elderly over young people is very much worse in these areas,” she explained.

Still, Paula Santana said that “Portugal is one of the oldest countries in Europe and the world”, having in 2018 “more than two million people over 65 years, in 10.3 million inhabitants”.

“This number will increase greatly, by 2040 it is estimated to be almost 40 percent in this age group. It is indeed a warning that we should all have. It is a result of improving living conditions and a 21st century achievement, but we must keep in mind that people do not just want to live longer. They want to live happier years, be creative and useful, but that's what sometimes fails,” she said.

According to the official, this situation of “demographic risk” raises “multiple challenges for the country” and there is a need to create “life-cycle welfare policies”, not only for those still living in rural areas, but also to attract new residents.

The implementation of these measures, she added, "is the role of local governments, in articulation with regional and central governments."

In recent weeks, regionalization has been touted as a solution to the demographic problems that exist in the country, however, Paula Santana has declined to comment on the subject, stating that it is "divided".

The debate on this subject was intensified after the congress of the National Association of Portuguese Municipalities (ANMP), held in November, in the city of Vila Real, where the municipalities approved a proposal for “creation and establishment of administrative regions in Portugal”.

However, Prime Minister António Costa has already referred the process to the next legislature, after the President of the Republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, called for careful approach to the creation of regions.