Why people are living for more years but enjoying life less

We do live longer – a whole lot longer, twice as long as we did a century ago! But prosper? Alas – that is a different ball game.

 Publicity photo of Leonard Nimoy, as Star Trek’s Dr. Spock, making the traditional Vulcan greeting sign. (photo credit: NBC/TWITTER)
Publicity photo of Leonard Nimoy, as Star Trek’s Dr. Spock, making the traditional Vulcan greeting sign.
(photo credit: NBC/TWITTER)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

Live long and prosper!

In the immortal Star Trek TV series and movies, this was the familiar greeting of Dr. Spock, played by the Jewish actor Leonard Nimoy. Some believe Spock’s Vulcan mantra is derived from the blessing kohanim (members of the priestly line) bestow in Shabbat Mussaf prayers. Spock always accompanied his blessing with the kohen’s two-handed gesture of split fingers.

Israel and most of humanity have earned half of Spock’s blessing. We do live longer – a whole lot longer, twice as long as we did a century ago!

But prosper? Alas – that is a different ball game.

 Former president Reuven Rivlin held a reception at the President’s Residence in 2018 for Israelis aged 100 and over. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) Former president Reuven Rivlin held a reception at the President’s Residence in 2018 for Israelis aged 100 and over. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Why Israelis live longer

First, the numbers. Life expectancy for Israelis in 2021 was 83.19 years, a 0.18% increase from 2020. In 2020, it was 83.04 years, a 0.18% increase from 2019. This increase occurred, even though 2020 and 2021 were the years of corona, when 8,251 people died of the virus during those two years.

A report by the OECD shows the average life expectancy of an Israeli man has increased in recent years, and is almost three years longer than the average among men in OECD countries. Israeli women, too, live longer, though the gap is smaller.

So why do Israelis live longer?

An annual OECD report on the health data of the 38 member countries found that Israelis drink less alcohol and commit suicide less than people in other countries.

The rate of alcohol consumption per capita here is significantly lower than the OECD average: at 3.1 liters per year, it is just over a third of the 8.8-liter average among the other countries.

Another measure in which Israel excels is the suicide rate. It did increase in 2019, at six per 100,000 people. However, that is only half of the OECD average, which stands at 11.6.

In terms of smoking and obesity, which both affect life expectancy, Israel is in the middle. The rate of smokers in Israel in 2019 was 16.4% of the population age 15 and over, close to the average rate of OECD. The obesity rate here was 17.7%, similar to the OECD average.

“OECD data faithfully reflect the state of the health system in Israel, which shows excellent results, but with relatively low resources,” said Health Ministry Director-General Prof. Nachman Ash.

In other words, Israelis live longer “on the cheap.” But can this continue?

There is a burgeoning shortage of hospital beds, doctors and nurses. Medical professionals are exhausted, as we enter the third year of the pandemic. We desperately need to refund our healthcare system and greatly expand the number of nurses and doctors.

Why people everywhere live longer

It turns out that people virtually everywhere live longer. A lot longer.

According to author Steven Johnson in his 2021 book, Extra life: A Short History of Living Longer, life expectancy in the UK from 1668, when data were first kept, to 1900 was constant, at 30-40 years. There then followed a steep rise to 80 years today.

Life expectancy doubled! Similar outcomes occurred in the US.

“If the same upward trend continues [over the coming century], the ‘average’ person would live to 160,” Johnson observed. A scary thought.

Why did life expectancy double in a century?

A major factor was the massive drop in child mortality. Johnson recounts that for centuries half or more of all children age five or under died. In 2020, in advanced countries, that figure was only 4%, or one in 25.

“As a species, we have doubled our life expectancy in just one century... and we have reduced the odds of that most devastating of human experiences – the death of a child – by more than a factor of ten,” Johnson noted.

What or who did the trick? Credit French scientist Louis Pasteur, who discovered in 1865 that microorganisms cause disease. As the Industrial Revolution drew women into factory labor, their nannies had to give their children cow’s milk at home. The milk available at the time was filthy, and sickened many babies and tots.

It took 50 years after Pasteur’s breakthrough discovery for milk to be pasteurized and made safe for children. And the impact was startling. Contrast this with the three months or so it took to develop the corona mRNA vaccine.

Why we enjoy life less, and how to enjoy life more

There is a major problem with longevity. Those extra years are often not happy ones.

For me, this is personal: I will turn 80 in November, and blessedly enjoy good health, but I am keenly aware of the statistics. They are grim.

“The share of our lives we spend in poor health has not diminished over time,” a recent study by the global consulting firm McKinsey reveals. “On average, people spend about half their lives in less than good health, including one-eighth of their lives in poor health.”

One-eighth! That is, on average, a full decade of poor health.

Moreover, in 1960 half of our lives were spent in poor or ill health; and in 2020, still the same – half. Longer life, longer number of years in anguish. Medical science has given us more years of life but alas, not more years of happy living.

Health is crucial. According to McKinsey, “literature on life satisfaction shows that having a substantial health problem... reduces life satisfaction twice as much as losing a job or losing a loved one, and five times as much as losing half of one’s income!”

“The upshot,” McKinsey concludes, “is that we spend more time in absolute terms in moderate and poor health than we have at any other point in history... and the situation may be gradually worsening, particularly in high-income countries, where chronic conditions now afflict growing numbers of people for a significant portion of their lives.”

So we live longer, but that means we suffer longer. And it is partly, only partly, our own fault. We eat the wrong foods, we fail to exercise, and when society sends us out to pasture prematurely, as pensioners, we may lose all meaning and purpose in life.

In 1883 German chancellor Otto von Bismarck, battling the Marxists, announced pension-eligible retirement at age 65 – costless to his Treasury, because few people then lived that long. Today the number 65 is retained, through inertia, but is as obsolete as a slide rule.

Take for instance diabetes, today a major public health problem approaching epidemic proportions globally, with 415 million people suffering from it worldwide, a third more than the population of the US.

What is the point of longer life, then, if the extra years are often unhappy, ailing ones? And is there anything to be done?

Here is McKinsey’s four-point program.

  • Physical health: Improve your diet, watch your weight, and exercise. 
  • Mental health: Cultivate optimism, and develop resilience.
  • Social health: Build nurturing, genuine, supportive relations. It takes effort.
  • Spiritual health: Maintain a sense of purpose. Stay relevant. Create value for others. Find meaning in those extra years. If you can.

I do understand that ill health can make all or many of those four actions much harder.

Kudos to McKinsey, whose raison d’etre is helping companies make more money. A refreshing shift, to help us enjoy longer happier lives.  ■

The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at S. Neaman Institute, Technion, and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com