A study appeared in PLoS ONE, the peer-reviewed journal published by the Public Library of Science, that drew attention in Israel but made barely a ripple in the United States: That men who’d survived the Holocaust lived longer — significantly longer — than their peers who’d never been under Nazi oppression.
What made the study especially intriguing was its large scale and conscientious design: The authors looked at more than 55,000 Polish immigrants, roughly three quarters of whom came to Israel between 1945 and 1950, directly after the Holocaust, and about one quarter of whom had come to Israel before 1939.
Researchers found that men who had experienced the Holocaust from 10 to 15 years old lived, on average, 10 months longer than their brethren who were already in Israel, and that those who were from 16 to 20 years old lived an extra 18 months.
No one, needless to say, was expecting this outcome. Studies of Holocaust survivors have repeatedly shown that their mental health remained — and remains, in the instances of those who are still alive — more fragile throughout their lives: They reported more anxiety, more depression, and more all-around symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder than the general population. State-of-the-art genetic research also suggests that early trauma can severely damage our telomeres, the protective tips of our chromosomes that defend us against cancer and premature aging.
And so the obvious question arises: Why has one of the most traumatized populations in the world led longer lives?
The authors offer two theories. The first is the phenomenon of “post-traumatic growth.” It’s an intriguing idea, first developed by a pair of psychologists at the University of North Carolina, which stipulates that many survivors of horrific events emerge with a renewed sense of purpose and meaning, a reorientation toward life.
Some of the earliest studies of this phenomenon looked at POWs from Vietnam, many of whom have shown remarkable resilience and productivity (like the late Sen. John McCain). It has since been documented in scores of other contexts — in survivors of terrorism and natural disasters, in those who’ve lived through mortal illnesses and the deaths of loved ones.
“We certainly see it here a lot,” said Asher Aladjem, the chief psychiatrist at the New York University Bellevue program for survivors of torture. He cited one of his patients, who lost a child in the conflict in the Ivory Coast. “He believes God guided him here to make a better life for the rest of his family and himself.”
It is one thing, however, to posit that trauma gives some people a renewed appreciation for life. It is something else entirely to declare that it adds years to one.
Why has one of the most traumatized populations in the world led longer lives?
Whether there’s a correlation between happiness and life expectancy is in fact very much open to debate.
“It’s all speculative,” said Abraham Sagi-Schwartz, a professor of psychology at the University of Haifa in Israel and one of the Holocaust study’s co-authors. “I have trouble, too, litigating these conflicting data.”
But as someone who’s interviewed Holocaust survivors and not simply amassed data about them, Sagi-Schwartz, a fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, also had a different perspective. “Forget, for a moment, these dry statistics,” he said. “Many survivors will tell you: ‘We won the war. It’s our victory. We have children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, successful ones.’ ” He said it would be hard to measure how emboldening that is. “Maybe the survivors,” he said, “developed a strong desire to celebrate their victory.”
Perhaps. There’s another possibility, however, that those
strong enough to survive the concentration camps were bound to live longer. And the authors do float this idea:
An alternative interpretation would be differential mortality, meaning that those vulnerable to life-threatening conditions had an increased risk to die during the Holocaust. Holocaust survivors by definition survived severe trauma, and this may be related to their specific genetic, temperamental, physical, or psychological makeup that enabled them to survive during the Holocaust and predisposed them to reach a relatively old age.
A version of this story originally appeared on the New York Intelligencer website in 2013.