Icelanders have one of the longest life expectancies in the world. What is their secret? Does it have to do with specific eating habits and workout regimes? Perhaps the air is just a bit cleaner and the water clearer. Or do Icelanders have better DNA to make them have longevity? Keep reading to discover why Icelanders live longer than those from other countries.
40. In Iceland, the Average Life Expectancy is 83 Years
Icelanders have one of the longest life expectancies in the world, with the average person living past their eightieth birthday! Many Icelanders have lived to be over 90, and more than a few centenarians have celebrated their 100th birthday (via Statice). Many researchers have looked at this life expectancy and wondered just what the secret is (via NBC News). Does their diet, which is very different from the rest of the world, have anything to do with their longevity? Is their lifestyle a factor? Or is there something more causing Icelanders to live so long?
While many Americans have also lived to be 100, and Betty White died just a few weeks short of becoming a centenarian, the average life expectancy is a bit shorter than in Iceland (via Borgen Project). One challenge regarding the American life expectancy is not merely that it is just four years less than for people who live at the top of the world. No, it is that American life expectancy has actually been decreasing. Reasons include poor health and lifestyles that do not promote well-being, along with a fractured healthcare system that millions of people do not have access to (via Simply Insurance).
Worldwide, people can expect to live about ten years less than people in Iceland (via Simply Insurance). Reasons include lack of access to clean drinking water and poor sanitation, leading to disease outbreaks. Poor nutrition and endemic disease for people in developing countries drive down life expectancy considerably so that the average for the entire world is 73. Experts estimate that because of the global impacts of the covid-19 pandemic, including an overly stressed healthcare system worldwide, life expectancy will decrease around the world (via Borgen Project).
With poor health plaguing the developing world and the United States, researchers are desperate to find the secret to Icelanders’ longevity. Is the secret lack of access to fast-food traps like Krispy Kreme and McDonald’s? There is no secret that fried foods high in sodium lead to chronic illness and premature death, but is that really the reason why Icelanders live so long (via Grapevine)? Better diets unquestionably come into play, and should Icelanders adopt a diet that is higher in fast food, their life expectancy just may begin to decrease (via NBC News). However, what is their secret?
Iceland has a thriving tourist industry due to its unique landscape that is unparalleled anywhere globally. The island country, isolated in the North Atlantic, is lined with active volcanoes and coated with glaciers (via Iceland Mag). The geothermal activity related to the volcanoes has created numerous hot springs that Icelanders and tourists enjoy relaxing in, and the rich mineral content is undoubtedly beneficial to health (via NBC News). With such a tantalizing landscape, Icelanders spend a lot of time outdoors and take regular trips to the hot springs.
The lifestyle enjoyed by most people in Iceland is very different than in many Western countries. While Americans tend to run from one task to another, they either do not have or cannot take the time to get regular exercise. On the other hand, Icelanders get abundant exercise packed into their everyday routines (via Iceland Mag). In 2016, a correspondent from NBC News interviewed a 99-year-old Icelandic man who still swims every morning in the pool built by hand in the 1940s (via NBC News).
The traditional Icelandic diet is very different from what you would find in any other Western country. For one, Icelanders eat very little meat, and the meat they eat does not usually come as hamburgers (via Men’s Health). Local favorites include pickled ram’s testicles and boiled sheep’s head, which are occasionally eaten rather than as a staple. Diets low in meat are linked to better health outcomes, provided the meat is not replaced with high-sugar treats (via NBC News). Could low meat consumption be part of the key to Icelandic longevity?
Iceland is an island, and island cultures traditionally eat very high amounts of fish. The reason is simple: fish are abundant, and fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids and are also excellent sources of low-fat protein and many micronutrients (via NBC News). People who regularly eat fish — albeit not necessarily farmed fish or large fish with high mercury contents (such as tuna) — tend to have much better health outcomes than people who eat a lot of red meat (via Thrive Live Blood). Could high fish consumption be part of the key to Icelandic longevity?
Air pollution has reached crisis levels in many places in recent years. Breathing dirty air is linked to numerous health problems. Yet Iceland is very isolated from the rest of the world, has a pretty small population, and a pristine landscape. These factors contribute to the air in Iceland being so clean that people can smell its freshness (via Thrive Live Blood). Perhaps the clean air in Iceland is a key to the longevity that Icelanders enjoy; the lack of disease caused by poor air quality certainly raises life expectancy (via NBC News).
31. But These Factors Alone Do Not Tell the Whole Story
There is no question that these factors have increased the health and, overall, the longevity of Icelanders. If Americans had cleaner air, ate less meat and processed food (skip the pickled ram’s testicles, please), and got more exercise, they would certainly enjoy higher life expectancies (via Borgen Project). Less chronic disease from poor diet and lack of movement would surely improve longevity! Nevertheless, researchers believe that there is more to the story than a healthier lifestyle (via SimpleMost). The clue to understanding the longevity that Icelanders enjoy is almost certainly found somewhere else.
While clean air, freshwater, healthy food, and lots of workouts certainly help Icelanders live their best lives, the real key may be in their genes. Kari Stefansson is a researcher at DeCode Genetics, and he believes that the secret is entirely in the DNA that Icelandic children receive from their parents (via NBC News). The company has even conducted studies on nonagenarians (in their 90s) and has established a clear genetic link. In other words, Icelanders are naturally hardier, with healthier bodies that can survive well into their 90s and even past 100 (via Borgen Project).
The Vikings were warriors who became famous for raiding and pillaging much of Europe during the Middle Ages. They developed specialized longboats that allowed them to travel through vast oceans as well as up rivers, enabling them to penetrate as far inland as Ukraine. These boats were so adept at long voyages that some Vikings were the first Europeans to discover North America, 500 years before Columbus (via Wikipedia)! They terrorized local populations by descending on them suddenly, killing entire villages, and looting treasures held in monasteries and palaces. Today’s Icelanders are direct descendants of the Vikings (via Men’s Health).
The Vikings were primarily from Scandinavia, the peninsula that includes Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark. However, not everyone from this area was a Viking, as Vikings were not an ethnicity but rather a group of brute terrorizers who eventually settled all over Europe (via Wikipedia). They ultimately established governments in Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, Britain, France, and many other parts of Europe as they settled down and assimilated into the local populations. Iceland was uninhabited before the voyages of the Vikings, and the Vikings who settled down became the native Icelandic population (via Grapevine).
If you have read mythology about Thor and his family (the Marvel movies don’t count), you have an idea that the people who created these myths had complicated lives. The Frost Giants of the Thor myths are likely references to the intense winters that killed many people every year. Farming was challenging in many parts of Scandinavia because of the short growing season and rocky ground (via Men’s Health). As a result, starvation and disease were common threats. Possibly the biggest reason why the Vikings left Scandinavia and began looking for territories to conquer was that the land could not support them (via Wikipedia).
26. Natural Selection May Have Helped Vikings Be Heartier
Natural selection is a pretty simple concept to understand. It occurs when individuals of any species (in this case, humans) who are overall healthier are much more likely to live long enough to bear offspring. Those children inherit the stronger genes, while those with weaker genes are generally less able to live to maturity and reproduce (via NBC News). Researchers who have studied Icelandic longevity believe that natural selection may have strengthened the gene pool of the Vikings and led to the genetically based longevity that Icelanders experience today (via SimpleMost).
25. Natural Selection Can Strengthen Population’s Genetics Over Time
If we take the case of the Scandinavian people, they had tough lives. Many succumbed to premature death because of starvation and disease, as well as frequent warfare. Many people did not survive to the age when they could produce offspring, and their genes died out (via Wikipedia). Only those with the most robust genes would have survived. Furthermore, these genes would be reflected in subsequent generations of people. So, the natural selection that may have occurred before and through the Middle Ages likely affected the strength of Scandinavians’ genes today (via NBC News).
On their voyages, some Vikings traveled to Iceland. There may have been settlements there before the Vikings arrived. However, they seem to have been long abandoned before the Vikings came. They settled there and created the Icelandic Commonwealth. Iceland has not always been the independent country that it is today; other countries in Scandinavia had control over it during the Middle Ages because the tribal chieftains were warring so much among themselves (via Wikipedia). However, there has been relatively little immigration to Iceland in the time since, meaning that today’s Icelanders are descended from Vikings (via Thrive Live Blood).
Since Icelanders have descended from the Vikings, they carry the strong Viking genes that survived the fierce natural selection of pre-modern Scandinavia (via Wikipedia). More than the diet and lifestyle that Icelanders enjoy, these genes are likely the primary — and according to Stefansson, the only — reason why Icelanders live so much longer than other people around the world (via Men’s Health). In case you ever wondered what Vikings would be like if they were still around, now you know.
22. Historically, Life in Iceland was Very Difficult
Only recently has Iceland become the haven of good living that it is today. During the Middle Ages and into the era when other countries were eliminating disease and experiencing prosperity, Iceland was mired in extreme poverty (via Wikipedia). The severe isolation from other countries has historically made trade difficult, and the soil is difficult for farming. There was also a problem with volcanic eruptions, and these natural disasters caused the population to decline. Many Icelanders starved to death and succumbed to the disease (via Thrive Live Blood).
Iceland may be one of the countries you wish to visit before you die. However, if you were living before the twentieth century, Iceland would have been one of the very last places you would have considered visiting. Conditions were so harsh that when the Black Death hit in the fifteenth century, the first wave killed 60% of the population, and the second wave killed another 50% (via Wikipedia). While Iceland’s claim to the longest-running parliament in the world may make the country seem like it has always been a great place to live, the opposite is true (via Grapevine).
20. Natural Selection May Have Come into Play Again
Researchers like Kari Stefansson believe that once again, natural selection may have run its course and boosted the genetic pool of today’s Icelanders (via NBC News). We don’t know what allowed some people to survive the Black Death and others to die from it, but one reason may have been genetic. Only Icelanders who had the strongest genes would have survived the extreme environment of starvation, disease, and perpetual natural disasters. Those genes got passed down to today’s nonagenarians and centenarians, enabling them to live as long as they have (via Thrive Live Blood).
Icelandic genes may very well be some of the strongest in the world. The strength of Icelanders’ genetic make-up, inherited from their forebears who survived some of the worst conditions in history, seems to be the missing key to why Icelanders live so long (via Men’s Health). Stefansson’s company, DeCode Genetics, has collected DNA from one-third of Iceland’s population. He is adamant that the secret is exclusively genetic. He told NBC News, “There is a lot you can do, but you have to realize you are always battling yourself in everything you do to try to prevent your genetic destiny from becoming a reality.” (via NBC News).
There is a perpetual debate about whether the secret to the choices that we make and the lives that we live are the result of nature — natural forces, including DNA, that we cannot control — or nurture, the environments in which we are brought up and live as adults. Many people believe that a combination of nature and nurture is vital for people to live good and meaningful lives (via Grapevine). However, Stefansson believes that genetics, and only genetics, are the factors that determine every single aspect of our lives (via NBC News).
While geneticists may say that genes are the sole determinant of a person’s life, many experts agree that their environment definitely affects their choices. People who live in polluted environments without clean air and freshwater can expect a lower quality of life and a shorter lifespan (via Borgen Project). Those who eat healthily and get plenty of exercise can expect to experience a better quality of life, less chance of illness and chronic disease, and overall a longer life (via NBC News).
16. There Are Behavioral Factors That Impact Your Health
Behavioral factors refer to the choices that people make that affect their health. Choosing to smoke, drink, and use drugs certainly harms health, while choosing prosocial behaviors that include spending time with loved ones leads to better health outcomes. Icelanders have meager rates of drug and alcohol abuse, some of the lowest in the world (via Thrive Live Blood). They used to be higher, but rates have dropped considerably following significant government intervention, especially for teenagers (via Borgen Project).
The environment you live in is part of the “nurture” side of the nature versus nurture debate. Furthermore, it refers to more than just how much greenery and blue skies you get to experience. Your environment includes your relationships, work or school, and whether you have adequate housing and access to good nutrition. Another important factor is your access to healthcare (via Thrive Live Blood). Icelanders have superb healthcare provided by the government, and all residents have access (via Borgen Project).
According to the geneticist Kari Stefansson, “Without an environment that we call tobacco smoke, you’re not going to develop lung cancer in Iceland. But you inherit the compulsion to seek the environment. Your brain is hard-wired by genetics. And it decides in many ways what you do and how you do it. So there’s very little free will.” (via NBC News). While Stefansson places extreme significance on genetics, experts have considerable agreement on the importance of exercise, good nutrition, and avoiding cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs (via Grapevine).
The longevity in Iceland could be attributed to both healthy habits and strong genes. Stefansson has conducted studies that connect the genes of Icelanders who have lived above the age of 90, and his research suggests that longevity is the result of genes (via NBC News). However, the generous amount of exercise that Icelanders tend to get, the healthy traditional diet they eat, the strong social networks that many are part of, and the access to health-promoting services — such as doctors — certainly help (via Borgen Project).
Iceland has one of the healthiest environments in the world. The country relies so heavily on geothermal energy, produced by the seismic activity that underpins the country’s volcanism, that there is minimal air pollution from fossil fuels. Experts recommend 150 hours of exercise per week, 30 minutes five days per week, and 60% of Icelanders get this amount (via Borgen Project). Many Icelanders enjoy getting exercise by skiing through the snow-covered mountains and hiking through the pristine environment (via Thrive Live Blood). Swimming, in particular, is an Icelandic favorite, either in private pools or hot springs.
Despite Iceland’s excessively healthy environment, the secret to Icelandic longevity seems to be in the genes. Icelanders have undergone multiple iterations of natural selection, especially during the Middle Ages, leading to them having what may be some of the strongest genres in the world (via Borgen Project). How long other people in your family live may be a stronger determinant of how long you will live than your habits. Of course, if premature death due to smoking, drinking, or other habits is in your family, you may be able to avoid that fate by not doing those things (via NBC News).
10. You Can Still Adopt Icelandic Habits for Better Health
If you are not Icelandic, then the bad news is that there is nothing you can do to inherit those incredible Viking genes that allow them to live for so long. Still, there are healthy habits that Icelanders have incorporated into their lives that you can adopt. You don’t have to eat the pickled ram’s testicles but eating less meat in favor of fish and plant-based foods is almost a guarantee of improving your health (via Grapevine). Getting outside for fresh air and making exercise a part of your daily routine are some of the best things you can do to improve your well-being (via Today).
Stefan Thorliefsson was 99 years old when NBC News interviewed him in 2016. He still swam every morning in the pool that he built outside of his home decades ago. That is, even when the weather is below freezing. Swimming is a favorite activity for Icelanders, and not only in the hot springs that dot the landscape. Swimming is also one of the best exercises that you can do, as it is low impact and will not cause the strain that running will (via Today). If you want to adopt Icelandic habits for longevity, swimming daily is definitely one you want to add (via Thrive Live Blood).
Iceland’s climate is particularly harsh, especially during the winter. The days might be just four or five hours long, and blizzard conditions can cause whiteouts. Still, Icelanders spend generous amounts of time outside, especially hiking, swimming, and skiing (via Thrive Live Blood). Spending more time outdoors is one way to adopt an Icelandic lifestyle for longevity, even if you have never visited this small island country (via Borgen Project). The fresh air and physical activity will certainly make you feel better, especially if you get outside with friends.
Many Westerners eat far too much sugar, sodium, and bad fats. They stop at fast-food restaurants while running around, following a hectic schedule that does not allow ample socializing with loved ones or exercise. As a result, Americans have had declining health, exemplified by skyrocketing obesity rates. Icelanders eat much healthier, albeit their cuisine is more exotic than many Westerners might appreciate (via Borgen Project). Eating healthier, lots of fruits, veggies, and fish instead of meat, is a surefire way to boost health (via Grapevine). Furthermore, you might even add a few more years to your life.
6. Though Some Dishes are Odd by American Standards.
Icelandic yogurt, known as Skyr, has become popular in recent years in America (via Iceland Mag). You might expect some foods, such as lobster, stockfish, and bread. When Icelanders eat meat, they often go for lamb or sheep and the occasional puffin (a type of bird that lives in Arctic areas). And then there is fermented shark meat, known as hákarl, which probably is an acquired taste for people who did not grow up eating it (via Guide to Iceland). Boiled sheep brain and pickled ram’s testicles are other dishes that might be difficult to swallow (literally).
You don’t have to eat pickled ram testicles or fermented shark meat to enjoy the benefits of an Icelandic diet (via Wikipedia). Unfortunately, if you were not born with Viking blood, there is a minimal chance you will ever become a Viking. However, if you want to enjoy the experience of feeling like you are a Viking, you can visit a museum that has a longboat and other Viking relics. You can also read Icelandic mythology, such as the Volsunga Saga (via Iceland Mag).
4. But Eating Healthier and Exercising Will Improve Your Well-Being.
Even if you cannot ever develop Icelandic genes (and unfortunately, getting a blood transfusion or organ transplant from a Viking descendent does not make you Icelandic), you can increase your life expectancy through a healthy lifestyle (via NBC News). Eat at least five servings of fruit and vegetables a day. Decrease the processed food, sugar, and salt you consume, and drink lots of water. A significant lifestyle change may require trading in the hectic schedule for lots of exercise and time with loved ones (via Today).
Smoking is one of the worst things you can ever do for your health and all but certainly guarantees a lower life expectancy. Iceland has a smoking ban in indoor public places that have been in effect since 2007, meaning that everyone has cleaner air to breathe (via Wikipedia). Before the ban, about 25 percent of Icelanders smoked regularly, which is now significantly lower. Fifteen years after the ban took effect, 81% of Icelanders never smoke (via NBC News). Not smoking means better health for everyone.
There are clear links between smoking and chronic lung disease, including emphysema and lung cancer. These illnesses decrease not only life expectancy but also the quality of life. E-cigarettes come with their own host of problems and should also be avoided. Only five percent of Icelanders smoke e-cigarettes, and most of these are over the age of 35, not children under 18 (via Wikipedia). Even though Stefansson attributes Icelandic longevity exclusively to genes, the lack of smoking of Icelanders likely plays a significant role (via Grapevine).
Studies into Icelandic longevity reveal that if you want to live for a long time, both your genes and your choices matter (via NBC News). If your grandparents, great-grandparents, and other relatives lived for a long time, the odds are that you will, as well. Nevertheless, you cannot take that longevity for granted, as your own choices are also important. If you have a habit of getting drunk and doing risky things, such as driving or smoking regularly, you can expect your life expectancy to be shorter (via Men’s Health). If you regularly make healthy choices, you can expect to reap the benefits.