Matters of Life & Death

Each year the Institute for Economics and Peace releases the Global Peace Index that ranks countries in terms of safety, considering factors such as military expenditure, crime and terrorism rates, road safety, and medicine. The most recent report, released last month, saw Iceland top the poll for the third year running, while our dear Aotearoa was hot on its heels in second place, with Portugal, Austria and Denmark, respectively, making up the remainder of the top five.


Sadly, some of the most dangerous countries such as Syria and Iraq were once cradles of some of history’s greatest civilisation, beacons of peace and prosperity. According to UN estimates, more than half-a-million have been killed during the Syrian civil war, with a further six million displaced or in exile. Superficially, the United States offered the biggest surprise with the biggest slide on the list, plummeting 11 places to number 114 out of 161—and no doubt leaving a trail of orange in its wake. “While the true extent of such siginificant political polarity in the US will take years to be fully realised, its disruptive influence is already evident,” Steve Killelea, founder of the Institute for Economic and Peace, tells Reuters. He blames rising inequality, greater perceptions of corruption, and attacks on the press to have “contributed to this substantial deterioration in the US and overall decline in peace in the North America region”, yet its neighbour, Canada, came in at eighth place on the peacefulness ranking.


Overall, the institute concluded that, contrary to general perception, there was less violence in 2017 thanks to drops in the number of countries engaged in armed conflict with 93 nations generally improving on their 2016 index score — though there was a worrying rise in countries attacked by terrorists.


Needless to say, there’s plenty of overlap between this list and the world happiness report also released earlier this year that saw Iceland place third, Canada seventh, New Zealand eighth, and Switzerland and Denmark to also make the top ten of both lists (and the US fared far better, placing 14th—though this study was conducted before much of their more recent political upheaval).


And of course, with happiness and harmony also comes good health. Another study published in 2017, conducted by London’s Imperial College and the World Health Organization (WHO), concluded that by 2030, average life expectancy in many developed countries will reach 90, while its current tally of the top 20 life expectancies closely resembles the top 20(ish) of the Global Peace Index. Its top five, in descending order, being Spain (23rd on the GPI); Australia (12th); Singapore (21st); Switzerland (9th); and Japan (10th), with life expectancies spanning 82.8 to 83.7 years. (New Zealand is placed 17th, with a life expectancy of 81.6.)


Japan has long held the longevity crown, with one area in particular, Okinawa, so famed for producing centenarians that it is nicknamed the ‘land of immortals’. Their long lifespans are put down to plenty of tofu and sweet potato, a regular intake of fish, and a strong sense of community. Spain is famed for its olive oil-rich Mediterranean diet, good red wines, and an inclination to walk whenever possible; while Singapore combines one of the world’s best healthcare systems with eye-watering taxes on both booze and tobacco.


The obvious outlier when comparing the peacefulness and longevity rankings is South Korea. Coming in at 47 on the Global Peace Index (and just 56 on the happiness one), it is not only ranked 11th on the current life expectancy list, but projected to be the first nation to average a life expectancy of 90 thanks to an ever-strengthening economy, solid healthcare, a diet rich in fermented foods said to boost immunity and ward off cancer, coupled with low smoking- and blood pressure rates compared with Western countries. (There’s more bad news for the US, whose life expectancy at birth is predicted to drop to one of the lowest among high-income nations, at 83.3 years for women, and 79.5 years for men—five years lower than much of Western Europe).


“South Korea has caught up with Japan as its standard of living has increased, but in many parts of Asia, young people are eating Western diets,” says Sarah Harper, professor of gerontology at Oxford University. “The (previous) healthy diet may not be sustained as young people reach older ages.” Majid Ezzati, professor of global environmental health at Imperial College, who led the WHO study, says that the South Koreans are leading the way in terms of investing in childhood nutrition and education, adding: “What South Korea has done goes completely against some Western countries… against the prosperity agenda.”


“The jimjilbang (public bathhouse) brings together people to recreate, to socialise and to help reduce stress,” Camille Hoheb, founder of Wellness Tourism Worldwide, tells the BBC. “In South Korea, there’s also an overall sense of mindfulness that comes with the Buddhist mindset and an overall attitude toward a culture of cooperation versus individualism.”


Though, as Ezzati points out, many experts believe the average human life expectancy is unlikely to stretch much past 90, we still need to be better prepared in terms of social care and pensions: “… even if there is a limit to longevity, we are nowhere near it. We should be planning for more life.”


Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces