Live to 100 the Icelandic Way

Iceland. It’s a cold country far, far away. It has the third highest life expectancy in Europe. And it’s an annoying anomaly in my study of countries with high life expectancy. The other countries where people live long, healthy lives tend to be hot and sunny.

So what’s special about Iceland? Why do people live such a long time? Do they hibernate in Winter?

Here are some positive factors:

  • The country has clean air and water and there are more bathrooms per head of population than the average for developed countries.
  • It has a relatively high rate of employment, and people work fewer hours than the OECD average, which might help to reduce stress.
  • Crime in Iceland is almost negligible. The homicide rate is the lowest in the world, which probably indicates a strong sense of community and general satisfaction with life.
  • Icelanders seem to be a happy bunch, with 87% reporting “more positive experiences than negative ones” compared with the world average of 80%.
  • Although in the Winter, they can’t do much outdoor activity, they make up for this in the Summer with lots of outdoor sports and walking.

But there are negative factors too:

  • Iceland isn’t rich. The average household net-adjusted disposable income is lower than the OECD average. The country doesn’t spend more on health than others.
  • Icelanders aren’t particularly well educated. Literacy is average and the percentage of people with degrees is below average for the West.
  • Smoking is quite high and obesity stands at 21%, ahead of the average for developed countries.
  •  Icelanders eat little in the way of fruit and veg, but tons of seafood.

None of these factors shed much light on the reasons for Iceland’s longevity, except possibly the seafood consumption (plenty of omega threes) and general low-stress environment. But there’s one further fact that might offer some insight:

What does that prove? I don’t know. Vikings were tough, but did they live long lives? Live fast, die young, was the Viking philosophy, if you buy into the popular image of horn-helmeted warriors (which is untrue.)

Generally, it’s believed that inbreeding and marrying your cousin doesn’t promote good health, but this is an active field of research and debate. I’m tempted to admit defeat and write off Iceland as a statistical anomaly in my quest for the secret of longevity. After all, if the entire population really is descended from a handful of individuals, it’s probably not statistically significant.

Having said that, seafood is emerging as another factor that is correlated with longevity. Most of the long-lived nations I’ve explored in this series are islands or seafaring – Japan, Greece, Spain, Iceland, Australia. In the next article in this series I’ll be looking back and assessing the story so far, hoping to pull out some key factors for a healthy lifestyle. In the meantime, eat more fish!

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5 responses to “Live to 100 the Icelandic Way

  1. Pingback: How to live to 100 | Blog Blogger Bloggest

  2. what about lamb consumtion is not bigger than fish?
    special in case of old people?

  3. Iceland also has the lowest infant mortality. why?

    • Hi Sarah! According to Wikipedia, Iceland has an IMR of 2 per 1000 births, which is very low, and about half that of the UK. Other countries with very low IMR include Norway, Finland, Monaco and Japan. I don’t know the reasons for this, but I suspect that many factors are at play. Interestingly, the IMR in Iceland has dropped steadily over time – in 1985 it was 8 deaths per 1000 births. In the UK the IMR has fallen from about 10 per 1000 births in 1984 to 3.6 per 1000 births – a similar trend. In the UK, the key reasons for the improvement are said to be developments in midwifery and neonatal intensive care. I suspect that rising living standards over the past 30 years have also been a contributing factor.

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