With a projected lifespan of nearly 81 years, Israeli men enjoy one of the highest life expectancies in the world. Some researchers believe the country’s mandatory military service is indirectly responsible for the public health phenomenon.
According to the World Health Organization, the average life expectancy for Israeli men in 2015 was 80.6 years, compared to an OECD average of 77.7 and a world average of 68.8.
A recent study conducted by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel suggests the higher-than-average life expectancy among Israeli males is a consequence of their compulsory 32-month service in the IDF.
Research carried out by Prof. Alex Weinreb indicated that service in the army contributes to Israeli men’s physical fitness, which, in turn, significantly improves their overall health and life expectancy.
Data from more than 130 OECD countries analyzed by Weinreb showed that male populations in countries with a mandatory military service lived on average three years longer than their non-conscripted counterparts.
Though Weinreb noted that enhancing overall public health is not a stated goal of military service, he said it was “possible to influence health through investment in institutions that are not directly related to health care.”
“In Israel, the army is one of the agencies with a particular status that allows it to impact public health,” he wrote in a statement released Wednesday.
In his research, Weinreb first examined sets of primary variables typically considered in life expectancy studies, namely a country’s general level of development, affluence, level of education and measures of inequality.
He then analyzed a second set of standard variables that took into account a country’s spending on health services and general accessibility to medical care, before examining a third data set that included demographic characteristics like population growth, crowding, and fertility rates.
Weinreb found that while the standard variables could account for over 80% of the variance in life expectancy among OECD countries, it didn’t sufficiently explain why Israeli men live so long.
So he dug deeper, and included another layer of variables: geography and religion.
Weinreb noted that populations located along a coast are generally healthier and place high on the longevity scale, and also considered the role religiosity played in life expectancy.
Still, he found those variables turned up an insufficient explanation.
Finally, Weinreb delved into another variable: the contribution of IDF service to Israeli men’s overall health and wellness.
In the statement, he noted the prominent role physical training plays in military service, and pointed to Israel’s low rates of cardiovascular disease and other medical conditions that can be influenced by exercise as evidence to support his findings.
The mortality patterns among Arabs and Jews in Israel also supported his findings, he said.
Arab Israelis, who generally do not serve in the IDF, on average suffer from higher rates of heart and vascular diseases than their Jewish counterparts, Weinreb said, citing official Health Ministry numbers.
His final set of calculations additionally found a direct correlation between life expectancy and levels of defense expenditure out of GDP of a given country.
“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,” Weinreb said.
Noting that compulsory military service is “not a cure-all,” Weinreb said his research proves there is “some evidence supporting [military conscription’s] positive influence on public health.”
But there are questions as to whether the analyzed data supports Weinreb’s conclusions.
Dr. Yuval Heled, the former head of the Institute for Military Physiology at Tel Hashomer’s Sheba Medical Center, told The Times of Israel that increased exercise during a relatively short period of time is not a guarantee of a longer, healthier life.
“I’m not familiar with the details of the study, but I do have some reservations about it,” he said in a phone conversation Wednesday.
“If the study isolated and researched soldiers serving in combat units, then there could be a positive correlation,” he said.
However, Heled pointed out that most Israeli males don’t serve in combat units, where the physical fitness demands are significantly 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.”
Heled said that ethnicity, culture and socioeconomic factors all play significant roles in determining a person’s longevity.
Israeli longevity among world’s highest
Earlier this year, the WHO projected that Israelis born in 2015 would on average live among the longest on the planet.
In terms of life expectancy, Israel ranked eighth globally, with 82.5 years on average, coming just behind Italy and Iceland.
Israeli were projected to live fifth longest on average, with 80.6 years, and Israeli women ninth overall with 84.3 years.