Why Do Israelis Live So Long?

For all the hardships, Israel stands out for longevity. Is it the prosperity? The olive oil? And, will it last?

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Israelis love to gripe about the country. Israelis think life here is much harder than in other Western countries. It turns out that Israelis also have a lot of time to devote to their grousing: life here may be difficult, but Israelis live long lives.

At 81.5, Israel has the sixth highest life expectancy in the world. This is mainly because of the men, statistically speaking. Israeli men can expect to live 79.6 years, on average, the third highest in the world, bested only by men in Switzerland (79.9) and Iceland (79.7).

How do Israelis enjoy such longevity?

Part of the answer lies simply in money. Citizens of OECD member countries are not only the richest: they boast the highest life expectancy. This is little surprise: it is well recognized that money can buy health services, which in turn prolongs life.

Research carried out in numerous countries has shown that three factors combine to prolong longevity: a good health system, good nutrition and a healthy lifestyle. All three depend on a country’s affluence and its ability to invest in improving health services, in education towards healthy living, and in its ability to provide a wide variety of nutritious food.

Israel is one of the more developed countries in the world, and a member of the OECD. It could therefore be expected to have high life expectancy.

Specifically, its health services are apparently still one of the better ones on the globe. Despite growing concerns about recent deterioration, the health system here is quite advanced and fairly egalitarian and accessible.

An additional major contributor to longevity is the local Mediterranean diet, with its abundance of fruit, vegetables and olive oil, as well as a preference for poultry over red meat. The climate is also thought to be salubrious, with moderate temperatures and long daylight hours on average, all contributing to reducing stress and seasonal depression.

However, other Mediterranean countries have similar dietary habits and climate, without boasting particularly long life-spans. Greece, for example, lags far behind Israel in its citizens’ life expectancy.

The argument by which the advanced egalitarian health system is conducive to a long life is also problematic. Scandinavian countries have no less of an advanced and progressive health system, yet Israelis tend to live longer.

Hybrid vigor and alcohol aversion?

What underlies this longer lifespan, particularly of Israeli men? Apparently, this issue has not been well studied. A country’s life expectancy is determined by qualitative, as well as quantitative factors, making this a complex topic of investigation. Nevertheless, there are several hypotheses.

Health experts point to two major factors which may give Israeli men a clear advantage: low alcohol consumption and considerably less criminal violence. The first factor could explain why women in Israel do not stand out in their lifespan, placing 11thworldwide. Since alcohol consumption in females is considerably lower to begin with, Israeli women do not have any particular advantage.

Actuarial experts have more complex theories. It is well-established that genetically mixed populations are usually sturdier. Israel is essentially a migratory country benefiting from the genetic fusion of its diverse migrant communities.

Other sociological theories point to strong and healthy communal and family ties as contributors to longevity, as well as a culture featured by a zest for life.

The latter theories are most intriguing.

Professor Yehuda Kahane notes that the difficulties of life here may contribute to a toughness and enhanced survival. In his opinion, the generation that survived the Holocaust and went on to struggle and build this country while fighting several wars found itself with a purpose and significance in life.

The link between quality of life and longevity has in fact been documented. A case in point was the rise in life expectancy in London during World War II. While thousands of young British men died on the battlefront, the elderly left behind stopped dying. The war brought about social cohesion and gave purpose to life, which prolonged the lives of the elderly folks at home.

Social networks and family cohesion are now considered to be prime factors contributing to a longer lifespan. Israel happens to be blessed by both, with many people retaining long-lasting, lifelong friendships, as well as close-knit supportive family relationships. Anyone who is envious of Scandinavian countries should bear in mind that a very low birthrate there has led to a weakening of the nuclear family. This leads to a lonely elder population, possibly contributing to a reduced life expectancy, in comparison with Israel. There are no clues as to why this factor might affect men more than women.

It should be pointed out that in many of the areas where Israel is at an advantage, ground is being lost in recent years.

Social cohesion has weakened, the health system is less egalitarian, and crime rates and alcohol consumption are on the rise. Thus, the exceptionally high life expectancy could turn out to be a temporary blip, enjoyed only by the post-Holocaust generation that established the state.

On the other hand, Israelis may well continue to lead many Western countries in longevity, due to all the beneficial factors working in their favor. These include climate and nutrition, alcohol consumption and crime rates that are still lower here than in many other countries, strong family ties and the bracing effects of a tough life. The ongoing conflict and ideological struggles give life more content and meaning than in other developed countries, and this may well contribute to the high life expectancy.

Despite the hardships, Israelis live longer, apparently because things aren’t that bad here after all.

At 81.5, Israel has the sixth highest life expectancy in the world.Credit: Moran Maayan / Jini

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