On the move: Spain's lessons in life expectancy

An agreeable climate, good quality food and healthcare, active social lives and work-life balance are all obvious pointers to living longer, says The National's travel editor

Close community, diet and climate are likely to be factors in Spain achieving the world's highest average life expectancy by 2040.
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If you want to learn how to live longer, visit Spain. That's the conclusion one must draw from the publication last week of a detailed research paper by Global Health Metrics, a leading health data science company, in the British medical journal The Lancet. Its forecast is that by 2040, Spain will have overtaken Japan to become the country with the world's highest life expectancy, with people living an average of 85.8 years.

Japan is forecast to slip to second place, with 85.7 years on average, and Singapore will be at No 3, with 85.4 years. In the same period of time, life expectancy in the United States is expected to be overtaken by China, and drop to 64th place, with an average life expectancy of 79.8 years; China will rise to 39th in the table.

The report, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, measured and forecast data including 250 causes of death in 195 countries. In terms of disease, the leading causes of early death in 2040 in the Mena region are forecast as heart disease, road deaths, stroke, kidney disease and diabetes, in that order. Life expectancy in this region is forecast to be 77.3 years in 2040, still higher than the global average of 77 years.

While the report does not speculate much on the specific reasons for each country’s success or failure beyond access to high quality health care and increasing progress on fighting communicable diseases, it’s clear that lifestyle factors such as obesity are proving tough to tackle.

While some have expressed surprise at Spain’s success, given the ubiquity of smoking and alcohol consumption and the widespread availability of foods such as processed meat, cheese and bread, you only have to look at how people live to see what they are doing right.

Ever since I was a Spanish exchange student at the age of 16, where nightly chatting at the dinner table, in nightclubs and on the street led me to feel I was almost fluent by the end of two weeks, I’ve seen that Spaniards have especially close ties to friends and family, and exist almost as part of a tangible community fabric, rather than separate from it. In Madrid last weekend, I was happy to see that such ties are still exceptionally strong, and, even better, outsiders are usually welcomed to take part. Whether they can speak the language or not, outsiders are kindly received by the Spanish, which is more than can be said for some other countries in Europe.

As I walked through the streets of Madrid’s Malasana area, I was struck by the number of small bars and cafes and of the crowds that still gather every night in the plazas after dusk. I felt energised by the audible, yet unmenacing din in these squares, where young people gathered, chatting animatedly. In the bars and restaurants, which were filled almost completely with people under the age of 40, there wasn’t a mobile phone in sight. Couples and groups were all engaged with each other, and having so much fun I could only reflect sadly on the state of things elsewhere.

In addition, despite the recession, Spain still has high-quality state-funded health care, good food eaten in moderation and they walk from place to place. They also have the good fortune of an agreeable climate and, unlike the Japanese, a disinclination to overwork, confirmed by the number of attractions that still close for a long siesta and the sometimes long-winded response to getting anything done (see also any film by Almodovar).

Long live the Spanish – they deserve it.


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