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Health

The secrets to a long life

Spiegel

What is the secret to a long life? There are factors that everyone recognizes, such as eating healthy and exercising regularly, but people often forget to mention one of the most important factors relating to longevity - where you live! It’s not surprising why some places are more conducive to longer lives than others. Political stability and economic success can help ensure long lives, as well as accessible modern healthcare systems, good sanitation and hygiene practices, high levels of education and governments that encourage their citizens to lead healthy lifestyles. Some of the countries and regions with the longest-living populations also have other factors working in their favor, such as the availability of fresh and healthy food, more relaxed lifestyles, and natural geography that is conducive to active lifestyles.

A recent study by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Central Intelligence Agency (yes, those folks) tracked the average life expectancy at birth for every country in the world.  According to the “World Health Statistics 2014” published by WHO, people everywhere today are living longer than in the past. Based on global averages, a girl born in 2012 can expect to live to around 73 years old, and a boy to the age of 68. This is six years longer than the average global life expectancy for a child born in 1990.

WHO’s annual statistics report shows that low-income countries have made the greatest progress, with an average increase in life expectancy of 9 years from 1990 to 2012. The top six countries where life expectancy increased the most were Liberia which saw a 20-year increase (from 42 years in 1990 to 62 years in 2012) followed by Ethiopia (from 45 to 64 years), Maldives (58 to 77 years), Cambodia (54 to 72 years), Timor-Leste (50 to 66 years) and Rwanda (48 to 65 years).

You can check out the entire list of the current ranking of countries here but these are five of the most notable results on the list, largely because they may surprise you:

1) Monaco:

wikipedia.org

The second smallest country in the world has the longest life expectancy at 89.57 years.  I guess good things really do come in small packages! Monaco has state-funded healthcare and attracts excellent doctors. In addition, the inhabitants of Monaco enjoy eating the very healthy Mediterranean diet and are said to have a less stressful lifestyle than in many other countries.

2) Japan:

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Japan has enjoyed a rapidly increasing life expectancy in recent decades. The country currently ranks #3 in the world with an average life expectancy of 84.46 years. As testament to their longevity, Japanese citizen, Misao Okawa who is recognized as the world’s oldest living person by Guinness World Records just turned 117 years old on Thursday March 5th.  That’s a lot of candles!  

The Japanese diet, which is high in vegetables and includes seaweed and fish, has been cited as a contributing factor in their long lives. The personalities and lifestyles of the Japanese are also thought to contribute to their long life expectancy: the Japanese have strong social networks and often participate in spiritual exercises like tai chi and yoga.  Although tai chi is considered a martial art, millions of people use it daily to improve their health and flexibility (http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/martial_arts.aspx).

3) Canada:

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I was definitely not surprised to see my home country of Canada rank so high on the list. Granted it is, in my opinion, the best country in the world to live in! Canada ranks #14 on the list with an average life expectancy of 81.67. You may wonder how Canada is so high on the list without that Mediterranean diet or “zen” lifestyle.

One of the most interesting explanations suggests that it’s actually newcomers to the country who have helped boost our life expectancy. The “healthy immigrant effect” theorizes that only the most mentally and physically fit individuals can, and do, leave their homeland, enduring the challenges of a major move in the hopes of long-term gains. Then the immigration process, which includes rigorous health screening, further examines applicants so that only the most resilient people settle here. Given that Canada has the highest immigration rate per capita in the world, this concept has become increasingly significant to demographers, says Frank Trovato, University of Alberta demographer and editor of the journal Canadian Studies in Population. One of the aspects that makes Canada such a desirable destination is our high standard of living. We boast strong employment, education and national income per capita, explains Margaret Penning, a sociologist at the University of Victoria (http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/why-we-live-longer/).  

4) Israel:

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I was personally a little bit surprised to see Israel high up on the list.  They rank #19, with an average life expectancy of 81.28 years.  Despite growing concern about recent deterioration in the country, the health system remains quite advanced and fairly egalitarian and accessible.  An additional major contributor to their 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 quite agreeable, with moderate temperatures and long daylight hours on average, all contributing to reducing stress and seasonal depression. There are also strong social networks and family cohesion which are prime factors contributing to a longer lifespan.

5) Iceland:

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Iceland wraps up the top 20 with an average life expectancy of 81.22 years. In general, Iceland is known for being home to a very content population who have well-balanced lives: women tend to work outside of the home, but also have many children and are part of strong (and large) family structures. The country has one of the highest GDP per capita in the world, providing financial security to many families. Iceland has a welfare system that is similar to that of other Nordic countries, providing an excellent social safety net, as well as a thriving economy with a lot of entrepreneurs and exports of products and services. On top of it all, the country is safe and its population is very well educated.

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Besides making us all want to move to Monaco, this list also gives us a clear understanding of what we need to be doing to support the countries that did not make it into the top 20.  Things like decent health care and strong education systems are factors that the world is making great strides towards, however, we should also keep in mind the other factors that came up time and time again in this list.  A healthy diet (not just making sure individuals have enough to eat, but ensuring they have enough healthy food to eat), strong social networks and an overall balanced, minimally stressful, lifestyle are the things will lead all individuals to live long and happy lives. Maybe then we can all be lucky enough to celebrate our 117th birthdays!