People tend to live the longest in countries like Japan, Liechtenstein. South Korea, the Faroe Islands, Singapore, Australia, Spain, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland.
Life expectancy is one of the most important metrics of a country’s well-being. When people have good healthcare, good-paying jobs, good living conditions, and other essential rights, they tend to live longer. Over the centuries and decades, life expectancy has risen globally, but some countries are doing better than others. In this article, we’ll list the 11 countries with the highest life expectancies and describe what makes them so successful.
Japan has had one of the highest life expectancies for many years. In 2021, Wisevoter (which this article uses for all the specific life expectancies) said 84.5 years was the average life expectancy. There are a variety of reasons why people in Japan live so long, such as low mortality rates of ischemic heart disease and cancer. According to a 2020 article, eating very little red meat, but lots of fish and plant-based foods contributes to fewer deaths from heart disease and cancer. Japan also has a universal health coverage system that consistently ranks as one of the best in the world.
People in this tiny country between Switzerland and Austria lived an average of 84.4 years in 2021. Why? They have access to universal healthcare, very high wages, and excellent educational options. The country also enjoys a strong economy and low rates of poverty, despite the high cost of living. Generally, wealthier countries have higher life expectancies, and Liechtenstein has one of the highest per capita GDPs in the world.
Switzerland has an average life expectancy of 83.85 years. It’s a consistent presence on lists of countries with high life expectancies and is often right behind Japan. Like many of the countries on this list, Switzerland’s universal healthcare system is an important factor. Within Europe, it spends the highest percentage of its GDP on healthcare, which has clearly helped it achieve high life expectancies. Switzerland also has a vibrant outdoor culture and strong social cohesion.
#4. South Korea
In 2021, South Korea had an average life expectancy of 83.53 years. According to one study, the country could even top the list and become the first country to achieve a 90.8 life expectancy for women by 2030. Advances in maternal healthcare are a big reason why. Generally, the country provides good healthcare to all citizens, while a diet high in fermented foods helps lower blood pressure and prevents cancer.
#5. Faroe Islands
While technically under the sovereignty of Denmark, the Faroe Islands are a self-governing nation. They’re very small with a population of just 50,000. According to Wisevoter, this collection of 18 islands has an 83.5 average life expectancy. High living standards, high-quality healthcare, and strong social cohesion are just three of the reasons why. People also eat a lot of fish, which studies consistently show is an important food for people wanting to live longer.
After Japan, Singapore has the highest life expectancy of any country in Asia. On average, people live to 83.44 years. The country’s universal health coverage, which uses a mixed financing system, is a significant factor. The country’s public statutory insurance system covers most big bills while patients are responsible for premiums, deductibles, and so on. Other programs help cover costs and people can also get private supplemental insurance or insurance through their job. This creates an overlapping healthcare system considered one of the best in the world. Singapore is also one of the world’s richest countries.
People in Australia live to 83.3 on average. The country has a universal health coverage program called Medicare. In this system, which is funded by a government levy and general tax revenue, all citizens are automatically enrolled. They get free public hospital care and excellent coverage on a lot of other services. Australia’s handling of COVID-19 is another reason why it has such a high life expectancy. The disease was contained early through strict lockdowns and a border shutdown. This kept the death rate fairly low while also reducing deaths from other diseases brought in by tourists.
In 2021, Spain had an average life expectancy of 83.18. In a 2018 report, research found that Spain could end up surpassing Japan in 2040 thanks to factors like its healthy population and high spending on healthcare. What makes Spain so healthy? Most people naturally follow the Mediterranean diet, which is high in vegetables, fish, olive oil, nuts, and whole grains. Research consistently shows this diet helps reduce the risk of heart issues, diabetes, some types of cancer, and dementia. Spain also has a good public healthcare system, though as is the case with many European countries, COVID-19 took a significant toll.
On average, people in Norway lived to be 83.16 years old in 2021. Reasons why include a strong public healthcare system, a low unemployment rate, and a diet high in fish, root vegetables, and berries. Thanks to these factors, Norway consistently ranks very high on lists of countries with the highest living standards and with the happiest people, though happiness is infamously hard to calculate. Norwegians also maintain very active outdoor lifestyles. They love to hike, bike, ski, and more. Considering how important exercise is to good health, it makes sense this would translate to a higher life expectancy. The country has also done an excellent job encouraging people to have a healthy work-life balance, which reduces stress.
According to Wisevoter’s chart, Sweden is tied with Norway with a life expectancy of 83.16 years. Its universal healthcare system is most likely a big reason why people live so long. Enrollment is automatic and covers services like inpatient, outpatient, mental health, dental, prescription drugs, and more. There is private insurance, but that’s mostly to help improve access to private specialists. Like many universal health programs, Sweden’s system is nationally regulated and locally administered. Longevity in Sweden is also linked to a healthy diet high in fish (like salmon) and fresh produce. Swedish people tend to eat sugar and saturated fats in moderation. Like Norway, Sweden also promotes outdoor activities and a healthy work-life balance.
People in Iceland live to be 83.12 years old on average. Access to good healthcare contributes to that success. Iceland uses a publicly-funded, universal healthcare system. In a 2017 Lancet study, Iceland ranked as the second-best healthcare system in the world. It was based on factors like access, quality of healthcare, and “amenable mortality,” which are deaths that could have been prevented by timely, effective treatment. The country got a 94/100 score. Icelandic diets are also quite healthy. They eat lots of fish, fish oil, and skyr, which is a protein-rich type of yogurt. Like most of the Nordic countries, Iceland also values a healthy work-life balance and community relationships.
What do countries with high life expectancies have in common?
Our research showed that all of the 11 countries on this list have well-developed, universal (or nearly universal) healthcare systems. Countries like Japan, Australia, and Iceland are all very different, but they each prioritize healthcare – especially preventive healthcare – and spend a lot of money maintaining their systems. Their citizens then get access to all necessary healthcare and don’t delay treatment because they’re worried about cost. In the United States (which bucks the trend of wealthier countries having higher life expectancies), 38% of people said they delayed treatment in 2021. For 27%, the treatment was needed for a “very or somewhat serious condition.” Life expectancy in the US is around 77 years old, which is much lower than in comparable nations. The healthcare system isn’t the only factor, but it supports the idea that universal healthcare is key to longevity.
What factors impact life expectancy?
Calculating life expectancies by country is a complicated process, but what are the common factors? We first need to understand that someone’s lifespan has three main determinants: their genetics, their environment, and their lifestyle. That means if someone is part of a family where people often live to 80, 90, or even 100 years old, they are more likely to live a long time, as well. It isn’t guaranteed, however. A person’s environment, which includes their living conditions, access to safe water and good nutrition, and access to healthcare, has a huge impact on their life expectancy. Lifestyle factors like whether a person smokes, drinks a lot of alcohol, exercises, or handles stress well also have an impact.
What are “blue zones?”
When you’re reading about longevity, you may come across the term “blue zones.” These are regions where people allegedly live longer than average, sometimes much longer than other people even within the same country. Dan Buettner wrote a book about these areas and identified five:
- Okinawa, Japan
- Sardinia, Italy
- Icaria, Greece
- Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
- Loma Linda, California
Buettner listed nine reasons why people seem to live longer in these zones, such as lots of exercise, good sleep, a vegetable-rich diet, moderate alcohol consumption, and social cohesion. Some of these factors do contribute to a higher life expectancy, but many scientists dispute the reality of blue zones altogether. The biggest reason is that data about blue zones is observational. There’s no way to prove if people are as old as they say. This isn’t necessarily malicious; it could be a record-keeping issue. Other research suggests people in these areas don’t actually live longer than other people in their countries, but again, it’s very difficult to prove the facts either way.