According to Japan’s Ministry of Health’s latest rankings, Hongkongers continue to have the longest life expectancy in the world for the second year running—with women expected to enjoy 87.34 years of life, and men expected to reach 81.32 years. Japan follows as a close second with men expected to live to 80.98 years and women up to 87.14 years.

Low smoking rates contribute to long life expectancy

Local health experts attribute the increase in longevity to drastic reductions in smoking rates in Hong Kong—thanks to anti-smoking policies implemented over 30 years ago. “Smoking in Hong Kong compared with 30 years ago has been reduced by half,” remarks Professor Tai-Hing Lam at the University of Hong Kong (HKU)’s School of Public Health. Smokers in Hong Kong constituted only 3% of local women and 19% of local men, although the overall number of smokers is still growing.

Lam believes that by keeping the smoking rates at the existing level, Hong Kong can hold on to its top spot in the life expectancy ranking. “Hong Kong has extremely low tobacco rates compared to the United Kingdom, the United States and Japan,” adds Michael Yuxuan Ni, a clinical professor from the same department. Japan, in comparison, reveals close to 30% of men and 10% of women who smoke.

Smoking heavily affects a person’s life expectancy. According to the Berkeley Wellness Letter published by the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health in 2000—each cigarette costs 11 minutes of the smoker’s life. Consequently, each pack of cigarettes takes away a day and a half of life from the smoker. If a man smokes a pack a day, he may shorten his life by almost two months.

Living longer does not mean living happier

Nevertheless, despite clinching the top spot, Lam notes that comparisons between Hong Kong and Japan should not be taken seriously. “Hong Kong is a city, whereas Japan is a whole country,” mentions Lam. “In general, people in the city have longer lives, and the people in Hong Kong have good access to education, clean water and electricity.”

On the other hand, countries like Japan have included the population living in rural areas who face significantly lower quality of lives, including poorer nutrition and lack of access to medicine, which ultimately affect the nation’s overall life expectancy rates.

Meanwhile, population health expert Paul Siu-fai Yip attribute the combination of low maternal and infant mortality rates, as well as healthcare efforts in taking care of the elderly, as main factors contributing to Hong Kong’s increased life expectancy.

Yet, he warns that we might be sitting on a ticking time-bomb. “Our strategy is still on hospital care rather than prevention,” asserts Yip. He points out that more emphasis should be placed on ensuring Hongkongers are living happier, rather than simply longer.

Additionally, when lifespans are extended, there will be an inevitable increase in the prevalence of chronic diseases, such as cancer and diabetes. An increased focus on prevention programmes that encourage a healthy diet and regular exercise are urgently needed in combating the rise of chronic diseases later in life.

Life expectancy is more than just a number

Life expectancy at birth is an indicator of a population’s overall health and welfare levels. It is influenced by social factors such as employment, income, education, financial situation, the strength of a country’s health care system; environmental factors such as overcrowded living conditions, sanitation as well as health behaviours such as alcohol and tobacco consumption, malnourishment and physical inactivity.

Estimates suggest that before the 19th century, life expectancy ranged from between 30 – 40 years. Industrialisation and the advent of modern medicine have greatly raised expected lifespans. The World Health Organisation (WHO) currently reports the average global life expectancy as 71.4 years, ranging from 60 years in the African region and 76.8 years in the European regions. Between 2000 and 2015, global life expectancy rates rose by five years—the largest leap since the 1960s. MIMS

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