Japan, home to some of the oldest people in history, could lose its long-lived title to Spain in less than a generation. A comprehensive study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle recently predicted Spain would have the planet’s highest average life expectancy among member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) by 2040.
The finding comes despite Spaniards’ high alcohol and tobacco consumption, relative to other European nations with similar living standards. This counterintuitive trend has prompted global health analysts to credit Spain’s olive oil and seafood-centered Mediterranean diet, along with the nation’s inclusive healthcare system, as the main reasons for its citizens’ longevity.
The aging of the Spanish population could have significant long-term effects on the Spanish economy, skewing demand toward products and services for the elderly, such as long-term healthcare or assisted-living services. An older country demands far fewer surf boards, baby clothes, and college degrees.
This trend is not new, either. From 1970 to 2015, Spain’s life expectancy improved by more than 10 years. The latest data shows that a Spanish citizen born in 2040 will live an average lifespan of 85.8 years, slightly higher than Japan, which will boast a life expectancy of 85.7 years. The numbers are even more striking when citizens are divided by gender, with Spanish women living up to five years longer than men.
Other death-cheating wealthy countries in 2040 include Singapore, with an 85.4-year life expectancy, Switzerland at 85.2 years, and Portugal at 84.2. Researchers say Spanish longevity can be credited to a variety of factors, but among the most vital is the Spaniards’ above-average physical mobility. Spanish citizens tend to walk more regularly than their European counterparts, with 37% of the population reporting they either walk or cycle to work daily.
Another critical factor is the Mediterranean diet, which for decades has been studied for its health benefits. The diet is based on olive oil, nuts, seafood, as well as fresh fruit and vegetables, with minimal processed foods in the mix. Spaniards also eat the majority of their calories in the middle of the day, allowing for efficient digestion throughout the afternoon. This healthy gastronomical process can be aided by a siesta, or post-lunch nap, which also has proven health benefits.
In addition, government data shows 99.8% of Spaniards have access to the nation’s publicly funded healthcare system, a figure two points above the OECD average. Meanwhile, the country’s health expenditure is below OECD’s average. Spanish states spend about EUR2,800 (USD3,094) per inhabitant annually, significantly less than the EUR3,400 (USD3757) average across the top 35 OECD nations.
Still, the nation’s health officials say there is room for improvement. Spaniards tend to have unhealthy habits, including alcohol and tobacco consumption. Despite the introduction of an Anti-Tobacco Law in 2006, prohibiting smoking in workplaces, restaurants, and public areas, more than 20% of Spaniards smoke on a daily basis, putting Spain in league with Latvia, Hungary, and Greece.
Physicians also note 50% of the population has high levels of unhealthy cholesterol. This can lead to increased risks for cardiovascular disease.
“Despite Spain’s privileged situation, the pending challenge is to reduce arteriosclerosis, which is the aging of arteries and build-up of fat and bad cholesterol on artery walls,” said Manuel Anguita, president of the Spanish Cardiology Society.
While high life expectancy rates appear positive, some analysts also worry about the nation’s shifting demographics. Spain’s median age continues to rise due to low birth rates. The average woman has 1.3 children in Spain, among the lowest global fertility rates according to the World Bank. Such a trend, if it continues, could eventually lead to a sharp population decline in the country, a fate Japan faces, too.