What Are The Healthiest Countries In The World?
We all know it’s important to eat our five a day, get our daily dose of exercise, and make time to relax and support our mental health. But some countries seem to be leaps and bounds ahead of others when it comes to keeping in tip-top condition. So what’s their secret?
In this article, we take a peek at the leaderboard for the healthiest countries around the globe, to find out which population is coming out on top – and, more importantly, discover what they’re doing right.
Walking has been proven to help with longevity more than vigorous exercise
We’ve compiled a list of the world’s healthiest countries based on life expectancy.
Using data from the OECD, we were able to see which populations are living the longest on average. Some of our data also focuses on Blue Zone regions, which are areas around the world with the most centenarians (people that live to be over 100 years old).
Once we collated the data, we looked closely at each country to see whether there were any factors that might have influenced these results, including culture, diet, exercise, and healthcare.
The healthiest countries in the world
|Rank||Country||Average life expectancy (years)|
The most obvious reason why the Japanese population has such a long life expectancy is down to the country’s traditional diet, which typically consists of rice, fish, vegetables, seaweed, Japanese pickles, green tea, and miso (a kind of fermented soybean product). Unlike a lot of Western diets, this diet has a very low intake of red meat, which has been linked to health issues such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
Japanese culture also takes mental wellbeing into consideration. The Slow Movement, which emerged in Japan in the late 90s, encourages people to stay connected with others, as well as with nature. The movement acknowledges the richness of rural life and communities.
The islands at the southern end of Japan have historically been known for longevity. Okinawans typically have less cancer, heart disease, and dementia than Americans – and women there live longer than any women on the planet.
The Blue Zone suggests that Japan’s greatest secret is a strong dedication to friends and family. Okinawans maintain a powerful social network called a ‘moai’ – a lifelong circle of friends that supports people well into old age.
As well as their incredibly healthy diet, Japanese people can also reap the rewards of their luscious gardens, which are said to have healing benefits
Unlike Japan, diet isn’t the key reason why the Swiss benefit from a long and prosperous life. In fact, their main traditional foods – sausage, chocolate, cheese, and bread – are far from healthy.
Keeping active is key for good health in Switzerland – and the mountains act as a playground for the locals (think hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter). But this active population also knows how to take downtime when they need it – indeed, only around 7% of Swiss people say they work very long hours.
Aside from these factors, the Swiss pride themselves on embracing a tight-knit community. It's estimated that 96% of people in Switzerland say they have at least one person they could rely on in a time of need. So, perhaps being healthy isn’t totally dependent on your actions alone.
Although they’re sitting comfortably in third place at the moment, it’s predicted that by 2040, Spaniards will have the longest life expectancy in the world.
Of course, Spain’s good health probably comes from some natural advantages, not least a warm climate that persuades scores of Brits to retire there. But the key reason? The trusty Mediterranean diet.
A typical Mediterranean diet consists of fish, nuts, plant oils, fruits, and vegetables. All these foods can help lower inflammation in your body, improve blood vessel function, and reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome and diabetes.
Spain’s longevity is also testament to strong welfare policies and social cohesion, ensuring older people not only benefit from a public healthcare system, but also from family and community support.
Italy is another country that benefits from the Mediterranean diet, but this is only one of the reasons why Italians are living longer than people in other countries.
There is something to be said for the Italian pace of life – not having to rush around allows time for leisure, family, frequent walks, and plenty of opportunity to enjoy the sunshine. Italy is actually home to one of the few Blue Zones around the world, situated in Sardinia. So what are Sardinians doing right?
Well, first and foremost, Sardinians’ strong family values make sure that every member of the family is cared for. On top of this, studies have found that Sardinians take regular walks, rather than doing vigorous exercise, which adds more time onto their life.
And whilst excessive alcohol is bad for the body, drinking moderate amounts of Cannonau wine has also been said to improve one’s lifespan. This type of wine has two or three times the level of artery-cleaning flavonoids as other wines. Bottoms up!
An Italian family sit around the table together, tucking into their healthy Mediterranean dinner
For some, these findings may come as a surprise, since Israel has had to endure a 70-year history of war and perpetual conflict. Despite this, the chance of dying from heart disease, stroke, cancer, or diabetes at ages 30-70 is among the lowest in the world here.
The main secret to Israel’s longevity is – yep, you guessed it – the Mediterranean diet, but low alcohol consumption also helps keep Israelis in tip-top shape. Similar to some of the other countries on our list, the close family structure in Israel is an important reason why the population generally has a longer lifespan – this way, people can comfortably receive help and support if they’re suffering.
The most important factor affecting longevity in Israel is the efficient Israeli healthcare system.
Israel guarantees healthcare to all citizens as a fundamental right, with a national health insurance law passed in 1995 providing universal coverage.
It has also been argued that compulsory army service may have a positive influence on public health. One of the characteristics of military service is physical training and, in Israel, there is a relatively low mortality rate from diseases that are influenced by physical exercises, such as heart disease and certain types of cancer.
Once again, diet plays a major role in raising the average lifespan in Iceland. Icelanders consume a lot of fish – a key source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which are linked to a longer life. The population also typically tends to indulge in an athletic lifestyle, which improves the cardiovascular system.
Living standards and life expectancy also go hand in hand. Since Iceland’s population is so small (364,134 people, which is only slightly more than the city of Coventry), its residents can enjoy excellent medical care, a great education system, and good incomes.
Some experts have also suggested that genetics are the key reason why Icelanders live such long and fruitful lives. Kari Stefansson, the founder of DeCode Genetics, collected the genetic information of one third of Iceland’s population. They compared the genes of those aged 90 or older, to see if they were more related to each other than other control groups.
“And indeed they are much more related to each other,” Stefansson said, in an interview with NBC News. “We established that the ability to reach 90 years of age was basically genetic.”
Norway’s impressive average life expectancy is a result of the active Norwegian lifestyle, a diet that’s full of Omega−3 fatty acids, and a robust healthcare system that’s funded by the public.
While these are all important for a healthy lifestyle, Norway’s infrastructure plays a pivotal part in the population’s lifespan. The country takes pride in great educational opportunities, a low unemployment rate (the lowest in Scandinavia with 4.1%), and total transparency when it comes to taxation – which keeps companies accountable and forces them to offer fair salaries.
While money can't buy happiness, it is an important means of achieving higher living standards. In Norway, the average household net-adjusted disposable income per capita is £27,767 a year – higher than the OECD average of £26,118 a year.
Despite having a diet high in saturated fat, the French have one of the lowest rates of coronary and cardiovascular disease in the industrialised world – it was a Bordeaux cardiologist, Serge Renaud, who coined this as ‘the French paradox’.
So, what is the French elixir of life? Though it may come as a surprise, it is in fact wine. Two to three glasses of wine each day can combat heart disease and cancer, and may even reduce your risk of dementia (although, more than four glasses can actually have the opposite effect). This suggestion is also backed up by research on wine consumption in the world’s Blue Zones.
Plus, similar to these Blue Zones, instead of sweating it up in spin class, the French tend to incorporate walking into their daily routines.
In order to combat the growing number of diabetes cases in France, the government also recently decided to ban free refills of sugary beverages. The law applies to restaurants, fast-food chains, schools, and camps.
Two Frenchmen in a vineyard at sunset, making the French elixir of life – wine!
Put simply, Australians are able to enjoy the perks of financial stability, which is also boosted by their wholesome diets, sporty tendencies, and laid-back attitudes.
A Global Burden of Disease research group expert, Laureate Professor Alan Lopez, points out that the main difference between the likes of Australia and the US is equal access to health services.
Professor of Global Health at Monash University Jane Fisher said Australia has one of the best health systems in the world. “We have Medicare which does provide everyone with access to primary health care, and also to hospital-based services, especially for emergencies and care for acute illnesses,” Professor Fisher told The New Daily.
The traditional Korean diet is heavy in fruits and vegetables, and far less punishing to the body than a Western one. Kimchi – a staple Korean dish – is based on fermented vegetables, which is high in probiotics, high in vitamins A and B, and low in sugar.
Koreans also know how to wind down at the end of a long day. The jjimjilbang is the Koreans’ version of a sauna, where visitors can ease their muscles in hot tubs, showers, and kiln saunas, and relax in a large resting area with heated floors. This tradition is said to release stress and help with mental wellbeing.
Other factors driving rising life expectancies here include improved nutritional education, advances in economic and social status, and a high-quality healthcare system.
What have we learned?
Eating a healthy diet, being part of a close-knit community, having access to a strong healthcare system, and even drinking a little bit of wine are all key to a longer life.
It seems like certain diets – usually high in fruit, veg, and fish – work better than others. And as for exercise? You might well be better off going for a walk in the park, rather than a sweaty workout in the gym!
Ultimately, people need support. Whether it’s from family, friends, the government, or your healthcare provider, a good support system should help add on a few years to your life.