Where do people live the longest?


Judith Davey

This sounds like a simple question and it is easy to find plenty of answers, many of them hard to reconcile with each other. The ranking tables of the countries with the highest life expectancy at birth in 2018 vary depending on when the data was derived and what is considered a “country”. For example, among the top ten in one list are tiny states or areas – Monaco, Singapore, Macau, San Marino, Andorra, Hong Kong and Guernsey. Some figures are adjusted for “healthy life expectancy” which estimates years of life in good health.

Some sources imply that all you have to do to live a long life is to move to one of the top places for life expectancy. A pretty naïve conclusion!

Tops for life expectancy at birth (years) appear to be:

1. Japan – 83.8
2. Italy – 83.5
3. Spain – 83.4
4. Switzerland – 83.2
5. Iceland – 82.9
6. France – 82.7
7. Singapore – 82.6

Australia comes 10 on this list at 82.5 years and New Zealand at 24 with 81.5.

But these are figures for average life expectancy at birth, for the total population. The picture is much more complicated than assuming that the average person in the particular country lives to that particular age. Life expectancy at birth is not based on how old the oldest citizens are but takes into account the number of people who die young. Life expectancy at birth reflects public health factors: water and air quality, traffic safety, hospital capacity, lifestyle factors such as smoking and so on.

Life expectancy can vary over time. It dropped in the Russian federation 1971 to 1994 and then rose again. In the USA it is dropping, due to “premature” deaths from factors such as drug use, suicide and crime.

Looking to the future, it is predicted that life expectancy in some Asian countries will overtake those in so-called “western” countries. Life expectancy at birth in China has overtaken that in the USA, and South Korea is likely to become the first country where life expectancy at birth will exceed 90 years, according to a Lancet study. This is probably down to overall improvements in economic status, health care and child nutrition.

So, what can we say about longevity? In these blogs I propose to get away from comparative statistics and look instead at Places, Foods and Actions which are or have been associated with long life.

Another way of looking at this is pinpointing areas which have large numbers of very old people. Four of these appear regularly in the literature:

Abkhazia – is in the Caucasus Mountains in southern Russia and is “partially” recognised as a state. There are some doubts about claims that people in this area are regularly living well over 100 years, in the absence of formal birth records. But the region certainly has high levels of physical and mental fitness among its older people and this has been known since the time of Ancient Greeks. It is a mountainous region, so the inhabitants regularly move up and down high altitudes in thin air. There is no one secret of longevity, but as well as regular exercise the local diet consists, on average, of less than 2000 calories a day, which is very low by “western” standards. It is composed of fresh raw vegetables, nuts and yoghurt. There is no alcohol or smoking and people never retire from work on the land and with their animals. The local older people appear to enjoy being old. It seems that the high quality of their personal relationships is another factor in their high level of wellbeing.

Hunza – is a remote and isolated valley in Pakistan-ruled Kashmir, at 7000 feet above sea-level. It was not well known by outsiders until the late 19th century although the inhabitants claim descent from lost soldiers of Alexander the Great (?). Its culture is unique, and it has been sometimes suggested to be the mythical Shangri-La. Here also there are reported to be large numbers of centenarians and “super-centenarians” (aged 110 plus). Like the Abkhazians, the people grow their own food, have a diet of raw fruit and vegetables, take regular exercise and enjoy good water and air. There is very little stress in their lives.

Vilcabamba – is an isolated area in the high Andes of southern Ecuador. Situated on the equator, the climate is balanced – mild and pleasant all year. The old people of Vilcabamba are certainly in good health and live long lives. They have a low calorie, low- fat diet, with fresh fruit and vegetables, good water and clean air. They work hard but have little stress and old people are valued and treated with respect.

You are beginning to see similarities between these regions, in environment and lifestyle, not to mention a social environment which is good for older people. Nevertheless, in the absence of scientific data it is difficult to be sure exactly how long people live.

Okinawa – an archipelago 360 miles to the south of Japan is different geographically, but it has the world’s highest prevalence of proven centenarians. Okinawan cuisine consists of green and yellow vegetables, fish, rice (smaller meal portions than in mainland Japan) as well as pork, soy and other legumes. Special local foods include the Satsuma sweet potato, the Okinawan bitter melon and seaweed, all low-calorie and known to be beneficial for health. Turmeric is also common in the Okinawan diet – noted throughout history, especially in South Asia for its health benefits, with antioxidant properties and anti-ageing properties

Next time I will look at some of the food items which may contribute to longevity.

About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit www.ageconcern.org.nz
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2 Responses to Where do people live the longest?

  1. You are quite right that life expectancy varies by ethnicity. The NZ Social Survey has figures for Maori, Pacific, Asian and “other” groups’ life expectancy. As far as I can see this is life expectancy at birth, which can be misleading. We need data for life expectancy at age 65 or thereabouts to measure total length of life. Also I think that the category “Asian” has far too wide a coverage when you think about all the groups which will be included.


  2. Alan Royal says:

    I suspect the New Zealand life expectancy is determined without taking account of the ethnic mixtures. See MOH life expectancy figures::
    In 2013, life expectancy at birth was 73.0 years for Māori males and 77.1 years for Māori females; it was 80.3 years for non-Māori males and 83.9 years for non-Māori females.. This is only Maori vs non-Maori. What about other ethnic groups?


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