1 August 2013

Surprising longevity boost from Holocaust

by Will Parker

Male Holocaust survivors have a longer life expectancy compared to those who didn't experience the Holocaust, according to researchers from the University of Haifa and Leiden University. The surprising findings have just been published in PLOS ONE.

Previous studies have shown that traumatic experiences can shorten life-expectancy and there is even genetic evidence that trauma may lead to a shortening of the chromosome ends that dictate the lifespan of human body cells.

The new study used data from the entire Jewish Polish population that immigrated to Israel before and after World War II. In total, data on more than 55,220 men and women immigrants from Poland was examined.

The findings showed life-expectancy in the survivors' population was 6.5 months longer than that of the immigrant population that did not experience the Holocaust. But when the researchers examined the differences between men and women they found that within the entire female population of Polish immigrants, there was no significant difference in life-expectancy between female survivors and women who didn't experience the Holocaust. The differences in the male populations, however, were significant, with male Holocaust survivors living on average 14 months longer.

In addition, the older the surviving men were at the time of the Holocaust, the bigger the difference in life-expectancy was between them and their peers without Holocaust experience. "Men who were 10-15 years old during the war and in their early adolescence had a 10 month longer life-expectancy compared to the comparison group. Men who lived through the Holocaust when they were 16-20, had an even bigger difference in life-expectancy, 18 months longer than their peers with no Holocaust experience," said lead researcher Professor Avi Sagi-Schwartz, from Haifa University.

According to the researchers, one possible explanation for the longevity boost might be the "Post-traumatic Growth" phenomenon, where high levels of psychological distress serve as stimuli for developing personal and inter-personal skills and deeper insights into the meaning to life. These factors could have eventually contributed to the survivors' longevity, they suggest.

"The results of this research give us hope and teach us quite a bit about the resilience of the human spirit when faced with brutal and traumatic events," concluded Prof. Sagi-Schwartz.

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Source: University of Haifa