Why Israeli Men Live Longer: Army Service

Israeli men have longer lifespans than the world average, by a lot, and the possibly counterintuitive explanation is they’re forced to serve in the military.

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Israel Defense Forces soldiers during a recent exercise.
Israel Defense Forces soldiers during a recent exercise.Credit: Amir Cohen/Reuters
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Army service seems to have a counterintuitive upside. Assuming you aren’t killed and didn’t serve as a military typist, you are likely to live longer, a new study analyzing the secret of Israeli longevity suggests.

For all the wars and the national cigarette habit, Israelis live longer than most people; this has been the case for decades and if anything, the gap has been widening. The question is why.

The answer that arose, compulsory army service, would actually pertain to any human being, Israeli or otherwise, and male or otherwise. But it was the contrast between Israeli army service for men and for women that outed the truth.

First the stats. The average Israeli man lives 81 years, far outstripping the world average of 68.8 years. The average male lifespan in the OECD is 77.7 years, says the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies. (The statistics relate to 2013.)

That figure, says the Taub Center, places Israel second in the world out of 170 countries, based on WHO statistics. It is ahead of peaceful spots like Iceland, Singapore and Switzerland.

The key to the puzzle was an anomaly in female Israeli life expectancy.

Israeli women also live longer than their menfolk, but by a less significant margin. Note that everywhere, women live longer than men, on average. In the OECD bloc, the difference is 5 years. But in Israel, where men live on, women’s life expectancy is only 3 years longer than that of men.

The difference, the Taub Center concluded, is that while Israel drafts both sexes, the men stay in the army for three years compared with the women’s two years - and they undergo much more rigorous physical training, as any ex-grunt will tell you.

“An analysis based on a sample of more than 130 countries found that military service added more than three years to male life expectancy,” the center states.

Naturally, a vast number of parameters affect longevity, from genetics to water quality to healthcare and education to local fertility rates, to crowding, to how far one lives from the ocean, and to whether or not one has pets. “There is also evidence that living at a distance greater than 40 degrees from the equator lowers life expectancy,” the paper observes.

The wrinkle of the new study by Prof. Alex Weinreb was to identify as many of the generally accepted parameters as possible, and weed them out of the longevity statistics. “After accounting for differences in those criteria across countries, actual life expectancy in Israel is much higher than the predicted level,” the study states.

Driving home the point, the study found that three of the four countries with the highest life expectancy for men had mandatory army service.

Comparison of mortality patterns among Jews and Arabs, who do not serve in the army, also supports the postulated correlation between army service and health, says the paper.

One model the study tested looks at the interaction between military spending as a percent of GDP and length of military service, treating this as a measure of the overall societal investment in terms of time and financial resources. The bottom line is that this variable alone, says the paper, explains Israeli men’s longevity over and above the effect of other variables that were tested.

If Israel didn’t have mandatory army service on which it spends an enormous amount – the exact amount is both secret and fiercely debated – male life expectancy in Israel would be shorter.

And is the reason all about forcing healthy young men to heave themselves over the hills in full uniform and pack? Comparing the Israeli Arab and Jewish men found the Arabs to have higher rates of cardiac and vascular diseases. So that’s a yes.

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