Lasting longevity needs clean air
Few facts could be as comforting to a population as knowing that it is at the top of the longevity rankings. Hong Kong women have overtaken Japanese to have the world's longest life expectancy, 86.7 years, while men are likely to live to 78.4 years, just 1.8 years below the title-holders for the gender, the Swiss. We now live on average one-third longer than in 1950, when our city was struggling after the second world war. Coupled with high literacy rates, a per capita GDP that puts us solidly among developed societies and good performances in a range of socio-economic measures, the far-sighted policies of successive governments have undeniably made great accomplishments.
But leaders should not rush to take credit for longer life spans. Pin-pointing exactly why we are living longer is not an exact science, although improved health care - a global phenomenon - has certainly played a part. Women were living to an average age of 64.9 years and men 57.2 in 1950, so genetics can be ruled out. As Japan had a similar rise, it is probably safe to turn to studies of their population for clues.
Research has put Japanese longevity down to exercise, low stress and good eating habits. It is the latter with which Hong Kong has the most affinity. As in Japan, seafood containing healthy fish oils is a significant portion of the typical Hong Kong diet. But eating habits are changing, with busy lifestyles making high-calorie, obesity-inducing, fast food and snacks ever more popular. Rising air pollution levels bode poorly for continued record life expectancy.
Our government is likely to use life expectancy as one of the indicators that Hong Kong is a good place to live and work. But those living to their 80s now are the product of times when life was less stressful, jobs were more physical and food and air healthier. If the longevity figures are to remain high, greater effort is needed to ensure a clean environment and educate about healthy lifestyles. Younger generations should not expect to reach long life spans until these are firmly in place.