Israelis in the army can toast l’chaim to their military service, which may be adding years to their lives, according to a new study.
Israeli men enjoy one of the world’s highest life expectancies — 80.6 years — second only to San Marino, and much greater than the worldwide average of 68.5 years, according to researchers at the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, who said the age gap could be thanks to athletically grueling, mandatory 32-month service in the Israeli Defense Forces.
“In Israel, the army is one of the agencies with a particular status that allows it to impact public health,” Prof. Alex Weinreb said in statement released Wednesday.
Military service contributes to Israeli men’s physical fitness, which, in turn, improves their overall health and life expectancy, he said.
Weinreb first examined primary variables typically considered in life-expectancy studies – namely, a country’s levels of development and education, affluence, and measures of inequality.
A second group of criteria took into account the amount spent on health and the general accessibility to medical care, while a data set included demographic characteristics like population growth, crowding and fertility rates.
While the standard variables could account for over 80 percent of the variance in life expectancy among other countries, it didn’t sufficiently explain why Israeli men live so long, Weinreb found.
So he included another layer of variables: geography and religion.
Weinreb found that populations located along a coast – such as Israel’s — are generally healthier and have a higher longevity. He also considered the role religiosity played in life expectancy.
Finally, he took into consideration the contribution of IDF service to Israeli men’s overall health and wellness. He pointed out the effects of physical training in the military and how Israel’s low rates of cardiovascular disease and other medical conditions can be influenced by exercise.
The mortality patterns among Arabs and Jews in the country also supported his findings, he noted. And Data from more than 130 countries showed that men in other countries with a mandatory military service lived on average three years longer than their civilian counterparts, according to the study.
Arab-Israelis, who generally do not serve in the IDF, on average suffer from higher rates of heart disease than their Jewish counterparts, Weinreb said.
The study did not examine such a possible link among women or focus specifically on ultra-Orthodox men, few of whom serve in the IDF.
Weinreb’s final set of criteria also found a direct correlation between life expectancy and how much a country spends on its defense.
“If Israel did not have the compulsory military service and spending that it currently has, male life expectancy in Israel would probably be much lower,” he said.
Compulsory military service is “not a cure-all,” but there is “some evidence supporting [military conscription’s] positive influence on public health,” he said.
But Critics said plenty of questions linger about the study’s conclusions.
Dr. Yuval Heled, former head of the Institute for Military Physiology at Sheba Medical Center, that increased exercise during a relatively short period of time is not a guarantee of a longer, healthier life, he told The Times of Israel.
“I’m not familiar with the details of the study, but I do have some reservations about it,” he said Wednesday. “If the study isolated and researched soldiers serving in combat units, then there could be a positive correlation.”
But he pointed out that most Israeli men don’t serve in combat units, where the physical fitness demands are far greater than those of soldiers serving in clerical positions.
“I don’t know that as a whole Israelis between the ages of 18 and 21 are more physically fit than their college-aged peers in other countries,” he said. “Doing rigorous exercise as a young adult isn’t necessarily going to increase your life expectancy.”