Holocaust Survivors Live Longer Than Native-born Israelis, Research Finds

Despite having a higher rate of illnesses, Holocaust survivors live an average of seven years longer than their peers of the same age group

Demonstration by Holocaust survivors in Tel Aviv, across from Defense Ministry headquarters, in 2012.
Nir Kafri

Israeli Holocaust survivors have significantly greater longevity than their native-born peers, acording to Israeli research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study conducted by researchers from Maccabi Health Services found that survivors of Nazi horrors live an average of 84.8 years compared to 77.7 for native-born peers of the same age group.

The findings are dramatic not only because of the seven year gap in life expectancy, but because it also contradicts a greater incidence of illness among Holocaust survivors compared to the general population. The Maccabi study found that Holocaust survivors were at higher risk for a long list of illnesses from high blood pressure to kidney and heart disease, osteoporosis, cancer and dementia.The higher incidence of illness was attributed in the study to rampant malnutrition, physical and psychological trauma and other hardships faced by Jews during the Holocaust.

Attempting to explain the longevity anomaly, one of the researchers told Haaretz “there’s no doubt that there’s genetics involved here, but I look at it from a Darwinist viewpoint.”

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“If, say, 400 of 1,000 people marching off to the concentrations camps survived the journey, then I have no doubt that these were a different sort of people. It's probable that they were blessed with characteristics that gave them greater chances for survival.  And these were the people who ultimately survived and then immigrated to Israel. I am convinced that if you were among the 400 who didn’t die in the snow... then you were more resilient and had a genetic makeup with favorable physical and psychological expressions,” the researcher said. 

Another hypothesis suggests survivors have better health literacy, hence they wind up living longer. In the study, Holocaust surviors were twice more likely to answer "keeping good health" to the question of what strategies should be employed for living a higher quality of life compared to their peers. "Many seem to recognize the importance of preventive medicine, making sure to conduct tests and follow doctors’ instructions, and understanding the link between lifestyle and longevity," according to the researcher. 

The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics counts 200,000 survivors living in Israel in 2017, including 60,000 who endured life in ghettoes, death camps and hiding, while the rest lived under Nazi occupation in some other capacity. Fifty-nine percent of survivors are women.

The research surveyed the health records of 38,000 Holocaust survivors and some 35,000 Israelis born in the country between 1911 and 1945, all insured by Maccabi, and compared data from 1998 through 2017.

Eighty-three percent had high blood pressure, compared to 66% for the native-born. Thirty—three percent of survivors were overweight compared to 26% of native Israelis, and 31% compared to 10% suffered from kidny disease.

Survivors were also found to suffer from higher incidences of heart disease and osteoporosis. And yet it turns out that Holocaust survivors have contributed to Israel having one of the world’s highest longevity rates, 82.5 years, with 80.7 for men and 84.2 for women.