When the smoke clears, let’s drink to Spain’s life expectancy

May 29, 2023
Source: Getty

Someone forget to tell the Spaniards that smoking and drinking are bad for you.

Take a walk through the busy streets of Barcelona and Seville, as I did last week, and the smell of cigarette smoke wafts through the air like it did in Australia back in the 1990s.

For us, after years of continual tougher and tougher smoking laws, having someone light up at the table next to you while you are eating, seems archaic – and it is certain to cause an almighty fuss.

But smoking still is very much a part of European culture, and if the locals do know that it is bad for your health, they don’t seem to care.

Seville is in Andalusia which in 2022 had the highest number of daily smokers in Spain. More than 1 in 5 people lit up every day. In contrast, in Australia, the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that only 1 in 10 people still smoke on a daily basis.

My mother and brother smoked.

Apart from one day when my brother convinced me to try one of Mum’s Menthol cigarettes – and I spent the afternoon throwing up – I have never been a smoker.

I was about 10 at the time. My brother is six years older than me, and he’d been stealing Mum’s cigarettes for years by the time he convinced me to try one.

He laughed while I coughed and chundered, but assured me that if I kept at it I’d eventually get the hang of smoking.

I never tried again.

Spaniards young and old smoke in equal numbers so it is not a generational problem.

I read a newspaper article where young people said they were taking up smoking to cope with the stress of school exams and just life in general. The picture with the story showed two 15-year-olds – a girl and a boy – smoking at the front gate of the school as other students and teachers passed by. These days the younger ones tend to gravitate toward e-cigarettes, but it’s still smoking.

The Spaniards are also the second highest consumers of alcohol in Europe, just behind the Portuguese. And they beat us hands down in terms of daily alcohol consumption.

So, is all this drinking and smoking doing Spain any harm? Well, no, not really if you believe the statistics.

According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, by 2040 Spain will have an average lifespan of 85.8 years– the longest in the world, surpassing the Japanese. Australia’s expected lifespan (according to the same report) is 17 months less bringing us in at a respectable 10th position, but a long way behind the Spaniards.

So what’s the secret to their longevity? How does a country that smokes and drinks so much, end up with a longer life expectancy than Australia?

The climates are similar. Both countries have plenty of sunny days that allow for healthy outdoor activities.

Apparently, it all comes down to the way they eat.

Scientists say that the Mediterranean Diet is one of the keys to why Spaniards live longer. But here are some more Spanish secrets that might just play a part.

The Spaniards walk a lot. They don’t really go to the gym to exercise, but given the chance to stroll from place to place, they will take it just to keep the body moving.

They take naps during the day. Siestas. That’s certainly something that I’ve added to my daily routine since I’ve retired. And I love it. According to a report by the Spanish Society of Primary Care Physicians, a daily 25-minute nap (no more) improves cardiovascular health and is good for your mood and memory.

They also have sex more often than us. Enough said on that subject.

Even though the Spaniards work longer hours than us, they tend to take more breaks during the day.

Most Spaniards take a two-hour lunch break to consume their main meal for the day, before finding a shady spot under a tree to grab some sleep.

I spent most of my working life drinking coffee and eating pies, sandwiches and chips at my desk. Taking an extended break, to sit down to a proper meal and then chill out, would have been frowned on by the bosses. It turns out though, that I would have been more productive.

The Mediterranean Diet is rich in fish, nuts and fresh vegetables. Spaniards tend to shop local, therefore avoiding many of the processed foods we now fill our shopping trolleys with.

As an observation, you don’t see the ubiquitous Fast Food stores on every corner of Spanish streets. Instead, you see small local vendors selling freshly prepared food so it is easier to eat a Mediterranean-inspired meal.

The benefits of eating this diet are numerous. Scientists say that it reduces obesity and Type 2 diabetes; lowers the risk of stroke and coronary heart disease in women; improves gut health; lowers the risk of dementia; reduces high blood pressure; and, may reduce the risk of common cancers.

Seeing how other people live is one of the reasons I love to travel.

Wherever I travel, I visit the local supermarket just to see what’s on the shelves. I think food does play a large part in who we are.

This week I’m in Spain trying not to cough while all around me seem to be puffing on a cigarette. Next week, Holland America’s cruise ship Oosterdam will take me to France where I will no doubt overindulge on buttery croissants. Then it’s on to Italy in search of the world’s best pizza.

Can’t wait!

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