Join the army – study shows it could lengthen your life

The Taub researchers noted that in three of the four countries with the highest male life expectancy in the world, there is compulsory military service.

December 7, 2016 07:13
3 minute read.
An IDF soldier.

An IDF soldier.. (photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN'S OFFICE)


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Those who decline to serve in the Israel Defense Forces are missing out in more ways than one – and a longer life is one of them.

Jerusalem’s Taub Center for Social Policy Studies has just produced a study that links longevity of Israeli men and military service, which contributes to improved physical fitness.

The study did not examine such a possible link in women or look specifically at ultra-Orthodox men, few of whom serve in the IDF.

The average life expectancy for men in Israel is around 81 years, compared to the OECD average of 77.7 and a world average of 68.8 years. This figure ranks Israel in second place in the world out of 170 countries, alongside Iceland, Singapore and Switzerland, with only San Marino ranking higher.

Considering other variables that influence longevity – including wealth and education levels, the health system and the country’s general demographic profile – the Israeli advantage is significant and growing.

An analysis based on a sample of more than 130 countries found that military service added more than three years to male life expectancy. This conclusion is reinforced in data showing the differences in the average life expectancy of men and women in Israel and in the OECD.

In the 34 OECD countries, women live an average of 5.5 years longer than men, but in Israel, where military service is shorter for women and in most cases less physically demanding, their life expectancy is only three years longer.
Minorities in the IDF: Muslim, Christian, Beduin, Druze, Circassian soldiers (Courtesy: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

While military service is an important component in public health, it has not yet been discussed in the academic literature relating to general health factors nor has it been discussed in medical literature here.

Prof. Alex Weinreb, a Taub Center principal researcher, examined the reasons for this high life expectancy in Israeli men and finds that one of the central variables is mandatory military service.

There are generally accepted criteria for estimating expected longevity in various countries.

Some of the criteria are related to a country’s general level of development, like wealth, level of education and measures of inequality, Weinreb said on Tuesday.

A second group of criteria includes the amount of expenditure on health and the accessibility of health systems, while a third group examines demographic characteristics like population growth rate, crowding, and fertility rates.

Weinreb’s analysis shows that together these criteria explain more than 80% of the variance in life expectancy among countries. More important from an Israeli perspective, the same model also shows that, after accounting for differences in those criteria across countries, actual life expectancy in Israel is 6.3 to 7.2 years longer than the predicted level.

When countries are ranked on “deviation” from predicted life expectancy, Israel is in second place globally (after Samoa), and it is top-ranked among all OECD countries.

The Taub researchers noted that in three of the four countries with the highest male life expectancy in the world, there is compulsory military service, and among the five leading OECD countries, only one, Japan, has not had some type of compulsory service in the past 30 years. Looking closer at military service, they found that the likely health benefits of compulsory service, including high levels of physical fitness, are most pronounced in the long term as men reach their 40s.

Weinreb also looked 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. This measure had the largest effect on life expectancy.

This is a highly significant effect, he said.

The variable of the interaction between military spending as a percent of GDP and length of military service essentially explains Israeli men’s longevity over and above the effect of other variables that were tested.

The mortality patterns among Arabs and Jews in Israel also support the relation between military service and health. “For the most part, Arab Israelis do not serve in the military, and, according to data from the Health Ministry, the rates of diagnosis of heart and vascular diseases among them are higher than among the Jewish population.

“Even if a contribution to public health is not a goal of compulsory military service, it has important bearing on future policy decisions,” concluded Weinreb. It is possible to influence health through investment in institutions that are not directly related to health care, and in Israel the army is one of the agencies with a particular status that allows it to impact public health.”

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