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Longer Life for Jews is Attributed to Education and Wealth

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Israeli men have the fourth-highest life expectancy of any nationality, according to a new analysis by the World Health Organization. Israeli males born in 2012 can expect, on average, to live slightly longer than 80 years, according to the WHO’s World Health Statistics 2014. That figure ranks behind only Iceland, Switzerland and Australia. Israeli women did not make the World Health Statistics top 10 list, but a separate WHO data set shows Israeli women born in 2012 with a life expectancy of 84, equal to Portugal, which placed 10th on the list. Japanese women placed first, with an average life expectancy of 87. Israel is the only Middle Eastern country on either top 10 list. Most of the countries on both lists were European.

The United States did not make either list. In the United States, life expectancy of additional years lived beyond 55, for Jews is 27.7. This is two to seven years longer than any other large religious group in the United States. Most of the life expectancy advantages for Jews can be explained by favorable socio-demographic composition relative to other religious groups. Jews, on average, have higher levels of education and higher levels of wealth than members of other religious groups do. They also are less likely to be current smokers than those in other religions, so health behaviors explain some of the advantage. Conversely, attendance at religious services, a well-known protector against mortality, is unusually low for Jews. Thus, the life expectancy advantage is mostly attributable to education and wealth, somewhat to health behaviors, and not at all due to attendance at religious services.

Life expectancy has risen steadily in recent years, with the average American now living for close to 80 years. But that’s nothing compared to the lifespans of people mentioned in the Bible.

According to Genesis, Noah’s grandfather, Methuselah, lived the longest, at 969 years of age, with others, including Adam and his kin, not far behind. But even lesser biblical lifespans are astronomical by today’s standards. Abraham reportedly lived to 175; Moses to 120.

As incredible as these ages seem, they signify the Jewish people’s earliest fascination with long life — a history reflected today by the common Jewish blessing, “May you live until 120.”

That goal is rapidly becoming a reality for many Jews. According to British census data, Jews live an average of five to six years longer than their gentile counterparts, and there may be nearly three times as many Jewish centenarians as in the general U.K. population.

Improved health care undoubtedly plays a role in the renewed longevity of modern-day Jews. But DNA could be involved, too.

“We know that the Ashkenazi Jewish population… tends to live longer,” said Dr. Winifred Rossi, deputy director of geriatrics and clinical gerontology at the National Institute on Aging. “They don’t get cardiovascular problems like in other populations.”

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