Israeli males can expect to live to older ages than almost any other men in the world. Israeli male life expectancy is 81 years, compared with the global male average of 68.8, according to a 2013 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Now, an Israeli researcher has developed a surprising theory to explain why Israeli men enjoy long lives: military service.
All Israeli men and women are conscripted into the military at age 18. Men serve for two years and eight months, while women serve for two years.
Alex Weinreb, a researcher at the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, analyzed data from 130 countries and found that those with compulsory military service added three years to male life expectancy.
He cited data showing that Israel has relatively low mortality rates from diseases linked to a lack of physical exercise, like heart disease and certain cancers. Israeli military service often includes vigorous physical training for men. Female training is not as rigorous, he noted, which can explain why Israeli women live on average three years longer than men, when the gap between male and female life expectancy is usually 5.5 years.
Weinreb even posited that defense spending can positively influence public health.
“Even if a contribution to public health is not a goal of compulsory military service, it has important bearing on future policy decisions,” he said. “It is possible to influence health through investment in institutions that are not directly related to health care, and, in Israel, the army is one of the agencies with a particular status that allows it to impact public health.”
There is no consensus on Weinreb’s findings. Dr. Yuval Heled, the former head of the Institute for Military Physiology at Tel HaShomer’s Sheba Medical Center, told the Times of Israel he was skeptical about the report because most Israeli men don’t serve in physically-demanding combat units.
“Doing rigorous exercise as a young adult isn’t necessarily going to increase your life expectancy,” he said.
In addition to the traditionally-studied variables like spending on health care and access to medical care, Weinreb said that other aspects of Israeli life could influence longevity. Religiosity is positively correlated with long life, as is living by a coastline.
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.