When it comes to life expectancy, Okinawa prefecture and its semi-tropical islands off Japan’s south coast have long been referenced as the benchmark location for living a long life. According to the WHO, the global trend for how long we live increased by more than six years over the first 20 years of the 21st century, with the average global life expectancy increasing from 66.8 years in 2000 to 73.4 years in 2019.
But in Okinawa that trend is in reverse. In 1980, it had the highest average life expectancy for both men and women, with men expected to live until at least 84 years and women averaging an amazing 90 years old. Yet in the 2020 census, it was discovered Okinawan men were living to an average age of 80.27 years and women 87.44 years.
Gerontologists have long attributed those long lives to a combination of nutritious diet, regular exercise, a continued sense of purpose (known as the concept of ikigai in Japan) and the vital support of close knit families and wider community. Of the drop in life expectancy, speaking to Deutsche Welle Makoto Suzuki, 89-year-old part time clinical cardiologist and joint-founder of the Naha-based Okinawa Research Center for Longevity Sciences explains, “We believe the problem is that younger people have failed to follow in the footsteps of earlier generations… The people of Okinawa have been influenced by the food and lifestyle choices of other societies, particularly that of the United States.” One of the downsides of globalization that clearly shows the impact of tourism and cultural exchange on indigenous communities.
So if Okinawa is now no longer the flagship for long living, where are the places and countries that people do live the longest? The not so simple answer is that it depends on which source you use, as reports conflict – but there are several countries and places that appear regularly towards the top of the list so, if you’re looking to add a few more years to your life, perhaps you should consider heading to one of these five healthy hotspots.
The Principality of Monaco tucked into a few coves of the Mediterranean Sea on France’s sun-kissed south coast may be the second smallest country in the world, but that hasn’t hindered its inhabitants from thriving into their golden years. According to the CIA World Factbook, its average life expectancy is 89.52 years – the longest in the world (though again, that’s not supported across multiple sources).
Famed for its wealth, glamor, high-stakes gambling and the most famous grand prix in Formula One, Monaco also gives its citizens a state-funded healthcare system, high-quality doctors, near year-round sun and outdoor living, a healthy Mediterranean diet and the kind of low-stress living that means you’re likely to go on happier, for longer. But in Monaco it most definitely comes with a price tag most can’t afford.
The other commonly cited home to the longest living, Hong Kong is an administrative region of China and a booming metropolis of close to eight million people. According to the World Population Review (which doesn’t include Monaco in its ranking), it has the highest life expectancy in the world at nearly 88 years for women and 82 years for men, making the combined average around 85. It’s a trend that has followed the city’s rapid economic development since World War II, where it has developed high-quality healthcare that has resulted in one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world. Mix in well-established youth involvement programs for education and employment and it reflects that mantra of strong social bonds cited in Okinawa’s historic long health. Add that seeming staple of long life, a clement sub-tropical climate, and you have a city bred for long living.
Despite Okinawa’s drop down the rankings, it still supports one of, if not the, healthiest countries on our list. Japan is home to the oldest man who has ever lived in Jiroemon Kimura (1897–2013) who reached the age of 116 years and 54 days (but not the oldest woman – for that we’d have to turn to Jeanne Calment of France, who was 122 years and 164 days old when she died in 1997). The same reasons we found in Okinawa are used to explain the long lives of citizens the length and breadth of the country – a diet high in vegetables, seaweed and fish, lifestyles centered around family and community, and the pursuit of spiritual well being through practises like tai chi, yoga and even karate, described by many as “training for the body, the mind and the soul.”
Keeping the run of long living Asia centric, we find ourselves now in the sovereign island and city state of Singapore, with an average life expectancy of just over 86 years according to the CIA World Factbook. For Singaporeans, having access to excellent healthcare and in particular to the efforts put into early prevention and detection of chronic illness has led to a huge increase in life expectancy – it has risen by more than 20 years over the last 60 years.
Singapore has among the very lowest death rates for cardiovascular or chronic respiratory diseases, as well as for unsafe water or lack of hygiene. Road traffic mortalities are low and amazingly, considering its urban density, air pollution levels are also comparatively low compared to other big cities around the world.
While the CIA may not agree, both World Population Review and Worldometers put Switzerland in their top five healthiest countries in terms of life expectancy. With an average life expectancy across both sexes of 84.25 years, Switzerland has nearly doubled what it was at the turn of the 20th century. The reason for this enormous increase can be directly attributed to the country’s growing wealth and associative health benefits – better preventative healthcare and access to doctors, a cultural predilection for exercise and healthy living (necessitated by all those mountains and lakes begging to be explored, no doubt!), and a sense of general well being. More spurious perhaps are claims that the national appreciation and thus consumption of lots of dairy products, including cheese, are behind its aging population!