Explorers throughout history have searched for the legendary fountain of youth. And while the elusive fountain has yet to be found, certain places across the world have emerged as centres where people live substantially longer than the worldwide average (around 71 years), and each has its own secret source of vitality.
We talked to residents in some of the countries where people live the longest, as ranked by the 2017 World Happiness Report, to uncover the reasons why these places seem to nurture longevity.
Living to 83 on average, the Japanese have long had one of the highest life expectancies. Okinawa, often called ‘the land of immortals’, has been a global centre for longevity research, as these southern Japanese islands have more than 400 centenarians. Much credit for this has been given to the local diet, which includes plentiful tofu and sweet potato, and a small amount of fish. Active social circles among older residents and a strong community also contribute to lower levels of stress and a strong sense of belonging.
To reap these benefits, learning the language as an expat is critical, said Daniele Gatti, CEO of Velvet Media and long-time Japan resident. “Japan has an amazing quality of life if you can get past the language hurdle to better understand the mentality” – which is more different from Western culture than most visitors think, she added. “Expats willing to move here should think seriously about putting a major time allocation into learning the language. It’s key to integrating deeper in the local society and living a full and meaningful life.”
The Mediterranean diet, rich in heart-healthy olive oil, vegetables and wine, has long contributed to Spain’s long-lived population (averaging 82.8). But Spain has another longevity secret up its sleeve: the siesta.
“People think all the Spaniards are doing la siesta when the shops are closed between 2:00 and 5:00, but it is simply how the working shift is organised,” said Miquel Àngel Diez i Besora from Barcelona and Gray Line tour guide. “If you have a continuous shift and just a half an hour break for lunch, then you eat a quick takeaway. On the contrary, if you are forced to stop for two or three hours, then you go home or go to a restaurant where you can sit down, eat two courses and dessert, and have time enough to digest well, it’s going to be healthier than a takeaway.”
The density of Spanish cities also gets people moving more, since shops and restaurants all tend to be within walking distance of most people’s residences.
“When I moved to Barcelona from Moscow, I noticed that people here favour walking or biking, even walking few blocks to take public transport instead of using their own vehicles,” said Marina Manasyan, co-founder of Barcelona Eat Local Food Tours. “You get your cells oxygenated and you reduce your carbon footprint.”
With broad access to the country’s state-of-the-art medical facilities and what’s been called a ‘miracle’ healthcare system, Singaporeans are living longer than ever at an average of 83.1 years old. The country has one of the lowest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world, and makes preventative care a focus of its healthcare.
The culture and accessible urban environment also contributes to a longer life. “You will see a lot of people going to gyms or exercising in the public parks, which are plentiful,” said Bino Chua, a current resident and travel blogger at I Wander. The country even recently opened its first therapeutic park, designed to reduce stress and improve mental wellbeing among aging adults.
Health-averse habits are also harder to maintain in Singapore. “Expats should know that ‘vices’ are a lot more expensive here,” said Chau. “Cigarettes and alcohol are heavily taxed and cost a lot more than in other countries.”
Men fare better in Switzerland than anywhere else in the world, living to be 81 on average. As one of Europe’s wealthiest countries, access to high-quality healthcare, strong personal safety and sense of wellbeing contributes to the high rank – with some studies even pointing to the country’s high intake of cheese and dairy as a leading factor.
Though the country can be very career focused with many expats moving for work at one of the country’s many international headquarters, its central location makes it easy to balance frequent relaxing escapes. “It’s a career pinnacle, location-wise,” said Gatti, who has also lived in Switzerland. “Living here allows for wonderful weekend trips all over the continent and to spend time outdoors in the enchanting Alps.” The private schools are also some of the “best on the planet,” she added, which makes it appealing to young families.
South Korea is set to be the first country to hit a life expectancy of 90 years according to recent research, which credits a strong and growing economy, broad access to healthcare and lower blood pressure than Western countries for its upward trajectory.
The country also has a diet rich in fermented foods, which are said to lower cholesterol, boost immunity and inhibit cancer. “As a whole, Korean food is high in fibre and nutrient-dense,” Hoheb said.
Residents say a cultural focus on community and the associated traditions contributes to the everyday quality of life here. “The Jimjilbang (public bathhouse) brings together people to recreate, to socialise and to help reduce stress,” said Camille Hoheb, founder of Wellness Tourism Worldwide. “In South Korea, there’s also an overall sense of mindfulness that comes with the Buddhist mindset and an overall attitude toward a culture of cooperation versus individualism.”