Why Do Holocaust Survivors End Up Living So Long?

A landmark study has concluded that Holocaust survivors are likely to enjoy a longer-than-average life expectancy, in spite of their greater susceptibility to serious illnesses.

The study, published in the January 2019 issue of American Medical Association publication JAMA, provides some of the clearest research into the life expectancy of Holocaust survivors – and the results arguably go against common assumptions.

Israeli researchers compared two control groups:

  • Some 38,000 Holocaust survivors, who were born in Europe between 1911 and 1945, then moved to Israel.
  • Around 35,000 people born in Palestine over the same period.

They found the Holocaust survivors typically lived to age 81.7, while the other control group lived to 77.7. The gap in life expectancy was four years. This gap persisted, even when researchers adjusted them to account for differences in sex, body mass index and socioeconomic status among other factors.

Holocaust survivors were found to be more likely to suffer from hypertension, cancer, chronic kidney disease, ischemic heart disease, dementia and obesity, compared to native-born people of the same age and sex.

This is unsurprising when you consider the malnutrition, poor hygienic facilities and lack of healthcare they were exposed to. Indeed, previous studies have also detailed an increased likelihood of health problems among this demographic. 

Yet, this paper suggests there’s something allowing them to live a long life anyway.

The question is: what?

Explanation 1: Resilience among survivors

The study’s authors suggested that lower mortality rates among survivors might be “associated with a combination of improved health literacy and unique resilience characteristics.” Were certain genetic markers responsible for helping some withstand higher levels of stress? It’s unclear, but a deeper exploration of the genetic make-up of survivors was encouraged by the authors because this could hold clues to creating a greater life expectancy among future Israeli generations.

Explanation 2: Holocaust survivors prioritize physical health

The authors offered evidence that holocaust survivors tend to put more emphasis on their physical health than other Israelis.

They cited a past study, in which a group of Holocaust survivors were asked to share their coping strategies for “the best possible life”. A group of pre-war and post-war immigrants were asked the same question, but Holocaust survivors selected “maintaining good health” as a strategy almost twice as often.

Those who place more weight on maintaining good health are more likely to be screened for serious illnesses and engage in methods to prevent them, it was suggested.    

Explanation 3: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

Another explanation is that surviving horrific physical conditions and traumatic experiences can create an increased sturdiness in later life.

Indeed, there has been plenty of scientific evidence supporting the ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ argument.

The immune system has been shown to strengthen to adapt to bad physical conditions. What’s more, studies suggest that sufferers of combat-related trauma find greater satisfaction in their later lives – and that this can be a factor in  helping people live longer.

At this point, we can only speculate as to whether these benefits overpower the long-term impact of the physical and emotional suffering caused by environments like the Holocaust.

Yet, this study provides strong evidence of a resistance to serious health problems within these individuals.

The authors concluded: “The findings showed higher rates of comorbidities and lower mortality among Holocaust survivors, which may be associated with a combination of improved health literacy and unique resilience characteristics among Holocaust survivors.”

The next step must surely be a deeper exploration of how this resilience is built, and what future generations can do to mirror it.

Images: Wikimedia.org, Bloomberg, Creative Commons, Kelsey Kremer / Register Photos.

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