Holocaust survivors in Israel outlive their peers by an average of seven years despite suffering from poorer overall health, according to a new Israeli study.
Lead researcher Dr. Gideon Cohen attributed the unexpected longevity among survivors to a combination of a genetic predisposition that helped them survive the Holocaust and certain resilience characteristics they developed as a result of experiencing Nazi atrocities. The study led by Cohen was published in the journal JAMA Network Open on Friday.
Researchers at the Kahn-Maccabi Institute of Research in Tel Aviv compared medical histories of nearly 40,000 Jews who were born in Europe between 1911 and 1945, and 35,000 Jews born in pre-state Israel during those same years.
Those born in Europe who later immigrated to Israel were identified as “Holocaust survivors” for the purposes of the study, and included Jews who fled the Nazis, those placed in ghettos, as well as Jews who were sent to camps.
All of the participants in the study that spanned from 1998-2017 were insured by Maccabi Healthcare Services, one of Israel’s major health insurance providers with more than 2 million members. The researchers said they made adjustments for the participants’ sex, socio-economic status and body mass index.
The researchers found that the Holocaust survivors suffered overall higher rates of chronic diseases — including cancer, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, heart attacks, obesity, chronic kidney disease and dementia — than the general population.
Some 83 percent of the Holocaust survivors involved in the study suffered from hypertension, compared with 66.7% of non-survivors. Another comparison found that 30.9% of survivors suffered from chronic kidney disease, while only 19.8% of the general population had the condition.
However, the data also revealed that Holocaust survivors in Israel lived to an average 84.8 years-old — over seven years longer than their peers who did not experience the Holocaust in some way, who have an average life expectancy of 77.7 years.
The researchers called their findings “paradoxical,” noting the extensive medical research linking chronic disease to lower life expectancy.
Cohen’s team suggested that survivors possessed a kind of “Darwinist ability to survive” — an inherent genetic resilience that helped them escape the Holocaust — which contributed to their overall longevity.
Researchers also suggested that as a result of the traumas they endured, Holocaust survivors developed better health literacy, and were more likely to seek pre-emptive medical treatment than their peers.
The team pointed to a 2016 study that found Holocaust survivors in Israel were twice as likely as non-survivors to consider “maintaining good health” as a coping strategy toward ensuring “the best possible life.”