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:
- Iceland is one of the most genetically homogeneous countries in the world. It’s thought that the entire indigenous population is the offspring of just 5 Vikings and 4 Irish women.
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!