The Spanish secret to living a long life (without giving up drinking and smoking)

This isn't some sort of utopia. You realise that when you sit down at a terrace and some guy next to you lights up a cigarette and starts blowing smoke in your face. What the hell?

You realise it, too, when you see the people begging outside the bakeries and the supermarkets each day; when you read about the sky-high youth unemployment figures; when you discover that ETA, the Basque separatist – and terrorist – organisation, officially disbanded and gave up its cache of weapons not several decades ago, or even several years ago, but in 2018; and when you experience the lack of kindness towards strangers that you take for granted back home.

Spain isn't perfect. It's not a wonderland. It doesn't have everything sorted out.

And yet in some ways it does, because Spanish people tend to hang around on this planet for a long, long time. Longer than almost anyone. Despite the smoking. Despite the people drinking at bars at nine in the morning. Despite the country's parlous financial state. Despite the three general elections in the last four years.

The life expectancy in Spain right now is 83 years, according to the World Bank's most recent figures, which mean it's beaten only by San Marino, Japan and Switzerland (Australians are expected to live to 82). What's most interesting, however, is that by the year 2040, Spain is predicted to have the longest life expectancy in the world. Japan will be in second place.

That's pretty phenomenal when you think about the issues here, particularly the high smoking rate.

I live in Spain right now, and it doesn't seem like utopia. There are, however, plenty of lifestyle factors I've begun to notice that we Australians could learn from, that everyone around the world, in fact, could take their cues from if they want to continue striding around this Earth for as long as possible.

First up: diet. The US-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the body predicting Spain will top the charts by 2040, cites the country's eating habits – the "Mediterranean diet" – as one of the crucial factors in its citizens' longevity.

People here eat well. Yes, they eat a lot, but they do the bulk of their consumption around lunchtime, when they all head home from work and devour multiple courses of olive-oil-soaked deliciousness and then allow it to digest with a good lie-down.


That's healthy. It's smart. The olive oil is good. The fresh meats and vegetables free of processed ingredients, the lack of trans fats, the heavy consumption of seafood – it's all good.

The lie-down, too, has health benefits. You might scoff and say the Spanish are lazy and that they're all at home sleeping when they should be working, but they actually work more hours in a year than the Germans, more than the French, more than the English. Each day is just split with a long break, which, apparently, is good for you.

The Spanish also walk a lot more than most people – they're always out for an evening "paseo", striding the promenades and boulevards of the cities – and they also have more sex than most people.

All of these are great. But they still don't tell the full story of Spaniards' desire to cling to this mortal coil.

The one factor that the study doesn't mention and which the ensuing discussion hasn't brought up is: community.

The feeling of community is unbelievably strong here, particularly in the Basque Country where I'm living. Yes, that strength results in a cliquey culture where people aren't exactly clamouring to make new friends, but for those who are in the gang it must be amazing.

The family unit here is strong. People go home to eat lunch each day with their family. They spend weekends with their families, holidays with their families. It's an extremely important part of life.

Most importantly, however, there's so much interaction between all the generations. You see people of all ages hanging out at the bars. There's everyone from two years old to 82 lying on the beach in their bikinis. Older people aren't banished to retirement villages or aged care facilities but instead live in the same places everyone else does, doing their shopping where everyone else does, going out to eat and drink in the same places everyone else does.

That has to have a huge impact on the older generations, on their feeling of belonging, on their feeling of being valued and important.

That, to me, is the biggest lesson to learn here. Yes, the food is amazing and the walking is great and siestas sound good but I still can't really bring myself to get involved with them just yet.

But community – the way towns are planned, the way people live, the visibility and interaction of every generation – is the most important thing. I find myself constantly looking around here and thinking, yep, when I grow old, this is how I want to live. Wine in the morning. Coffee in the afternoon. A stroll by the beach in the evening. Time with family. Time with friends.

That's the life. It's no wonder everyone wants to hang around.

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What do you think are the keys to longevity? Have you been to any countries that you think have things worked out? What could Australians learn?