Why Brits Live Longer than Americans (It’s Complicated)

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Senior man with legs stretched outward using laptop, side view

Two key pieces of research were released on either side of the Atlantic this week, shedding new light on what we can do to live longer — and why experts will be squabbling over the secrets of longevity long after most of us have turned up our toes.

Heathland has already carried an interview with psychologist Howard Friedman about The Longevity Project, the newly published book Friedman co-authored with Leslie Martin examining data from a study of children born in California in the 1920s. The purpose of the research was to identify factors that led to comparatively early deaths for some people while their counterparts survived into robust old age. And an analysis by David Leon, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, in the forthcoming issue of the International Journal of Epidemiology and available here in advance, compares trends in life expectancy in Europe, the U.S. and Japan to try to discern the reasons for wide divergences among countries and continents and between the sexes.

I approached the studies with trepidation, as the author of a book that examines dramatic changes in our expectations and experiences of age and aging. Amortality (it’s a word I coined to describe the increasing trend to live agelessly, doing and consuming the same things from teens into old age) won’t be published until May, but is even now being printed. Our understanding of the science of aging is in flux. What if the new findings challenged my thesis? It’s the kind of scenario to shorten a writer’s life.

Happily for me, both analyses seem to reinforce the research that underpins my investigation and our conclusions overlap. The Longevity Project, for example, finds that devil-may-care characters, far from being granted a longevity bonus by their dispositions as traditional wisdom assumes, die younger than the types the authors interpret to be more sober-sided and conscientious — but whom I might recognize as amortally driven. There is a correlation between happiness and longevity, but the components of happiness are not — say it softly — unlimited leisure, positivity and the absence of stress. In fact, the opposite may be true.

That accords with two observations about amortals. They — we — may be careless about health. We assume that medical interventions can deliver us from the consequences of our actions and see no reason to change our habits and behaviors as the years slide by unremarked upon until something jolts us out of our amortal rhythms. But a positive by-product of age blindness is the amortal appetite for work, which remains undiminished and may even sharpen as we seek ways to keep intimations of mortality at bay. And continuing to work — even continuing to endure stress at work — would appear to enhance our prospects for a long life, as Friedman and Martin discovered.

The benefits of labor are, of course, shared only by those with the conscientiousness, as they term it — not to mention the dumb luck of being born into environments that encourage achievement — to secure high-status work. People in low-status jobs are much less likely to bank health benefits from working and may even be better off doing nothing.

This is just one of the ways in which socioeconomics determine how we live and for how long, and Leon’s study lays bare inequities in health outcomes that at first glance might be attributed to the gap between wealthier and poorer populations. But as he makes clear, the statistics raise as many questions as they answer. Britons now live two years longer on average than their American counterparts although the U.S. has a higher per capita GDP and greater spending on health care (and it’s hard to see fish’n’chips as a health food). Indeed, Leon says there is no indication that the obesity epidemic engulfing both countries has depressed life expectancies. He adds the caveat that we have yet to observe “a generation of people who have been obese from childhood through to adulthood.”

What both studies and my own research confirms is that multiple factors interact in determining how we age. Only some of these are susceptible to influence at government or a personal level; that makes it even more important to pinpoint what those factors are.