Iceland Culture: A Longer Life

We depart for Iceland tomorrow night (10/29)! Here’s a teaser of a cultural story Dan is pursuing. Follow Columbia students’ journey, which begins October 30, on the Iceland Airwaves 2013 blog.

There is no consensus about what happens after someone dies. While the prospect of reincarnation is pretty appealing, it’s not a guarantee, so a long life is the best bet for enjoying the marvels of the human experience. Currently in America the life expectancy for males is 76 years and 81 years for females which places the country in contention for the 33rd highest life expectancy in the world. Further up on the World Health Organization’s 2011 life expectancy report sits Iceland where the life expectancy for males is 81 and 84 for females, placing them in contention for the fourth highest life expectancy in the world. Many things go into determining the life expectancy of a region. Some of the more substantial areas that factor in involve diet/lifestyle, health care and environment quality and these happen to be areas that Icelanders have reported higher than average levels of satisfaction with each, according to the 2013 Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) worldwide average.

It’s not just what Icelander’s eat that contributes to their overall longevity; it’s the production and preparation as well. Lamb and fish are two large staples of their cuisine, both of which are rich with beneficial fats and short on carbohydrates, the fat-to-carbohydrate ratio continues when the amount of cheese consumed by Icelanders is factored in, which is the highest in the world per capita. The terrain of Iceland makes growing fruit almost impossible and the growing of vegetables to be difficult but not impossible. The soil allows for root vegetables such as carrots, beats, and potatoes, while other vegetables and nearly all fruit is grown in greenhouses. What these greenhouses allow is for Iceland to produce crops without a heavy reliance on pesticides. According to Iceland’s environment and agricultural chapter of 2008’s OECD report, the country boasts one of the lowest pesticide levels in the world due in part to the presence of livestock and the banning of many readily available pesticides in 1980. GMO-free zones are beginning to spring up around Iceland, which further cuts down on the amount of chemicals going into the food consumed by Icelanders.

Iceland is one of the many places on earth that provides universal healthcare and has embraced the concept in some fashion dating back to the early 20th century. 85 percent of the healthcare system funding comes from taxes while the remainder is covered by the patients. Medicines used to treat serious conditions come with a 75% reimbursement while antibiotics and painkillers are covered by the patients. Does accessible and affordable healthcare work? According to World Health Organization’s 2010 data, Iceland has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world, but not only that, deaths caused by heart disease, stroke, influenza, and various cancers are some of the lowest in the world per capita. Healthcare isn’t the only contributing factor to the wellness of Icelanders. From the same WHO report, citizens of Iceland consume less alcohol than half of the world. Additionally, the obesity rate in Iceland is almost 10% lower than in America. Iceland is also above the OECD average as far as general happiness goes, with the average being 6.6 with Iceland posting a 7.6. While subjective, this assessment looks at the overall satisfaction one experiences in their life. With a decreased presence of stress, the maintaining of the current state of wellness becomes more of a priority, which leads to healthy lifestyle habits.

  Iceland currently draws 85 percent of its’ energy from renewable sources found within the country. Geothermal energy provides the country with 65 percent of its energy while hydropower contributes 20 percent of the countries power. Fossil fuel is used primarily by modes of transportation. Outside of economic benefits, Iceland also has cleaner air. According to the most recent OECD report, Iceland’s air has 15.9 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter while the global average is 20.9 PM-10 micrograms per cubic meter. Particulate matter is capable of creating health issues as well as lowering the life expectancy of a region. As reported earlier, Iceland uses a very small amount of pesticides when growing fruits and vegetables. With the absence of these chemicals, livestock and humans are consuming less harmful produce while soil and water sources are also displaying lower levels of toxins.

From an observational standpoint, there are definitely areas where these factors overlap. The lack of pesticides not only provides safer produce but cleaner soil, healthier food breeding a healthier environment, an environment that already benefits from heavy use of renewable natural energy. A satisfactory quality of life leads to the continued embrace of a healthy lifestyle.

For this story, we will be talking to Alma Eir Svavarsdóttir, MD
Program Director Family Practice Residency at the Efstaleiti Health Center, Laufey Steingrimsdottir,  a professor at Landspitali-University hospital and the University of Iceland, and Guðrún Gunnarsdóttir, an adjunct faculty member of University of Iceland and family medicine practitioner.


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