INTERNATIONAL - Sitting by a pristine lake in the Bavarian Alps, a group of twenty-something Germans seems to have woefully misunderstood the messages of health officials on what constitutes a beneficial lifestyle.
“One beer a day is healthy,” says Amelie Land, popping open a bottle of local brew. “Even the doctor says that.”
“We may smoke,” adds Erik von Wagenhoff as he puffs on a hand-rolled cigarette, “but we do it responsibly.”
In fact, the dangers of smoking are well known, and a recent study found that alcohol is linked to 2.8 million deaths annually. Still, the revelers’ views highlight a surprising European paradox: While the region leads the world in both alcohol and tobacco consumption, it also enjoys the longest life expectancy, 77.9 years, according to a report published Wednesday by the World Health Organization.
There’s plenty of good news about the continent’s wellbeing in the agency’s European Health Report 2018. Europe is on track to reduce early deaths from cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and chronic respiratory diseases by 1.5 percent a year by 2020. Gaps in important health measures -- infant mortality, primary school enrollment and unemployment -- continue to shrink between the region’s healthiest and unhealthiest locations, according to the report.
That’s helped Europe edge ahead of the other five global regions in terms of longevity. The Western Pacific comes in second at 76.9 years, followed by the Americas at 76.8, Southeast Asia at 69.5, the Eastern Mediterranean at 69.1 and Africa at 61.2 years, according to the agency. Average global life expectancy is 72 years.
Despite the Europe’s longevity ranking, residents should still heed warnings on smoking, drinking and other behaviors, said Zsuzsanna Jakab, regional director for the agency.
“Lifestyle-related risk factors give cause for concern, as they may slow, or even reverse the great gains in life expectancy if left unchecked,” she said in a statement.
Among the causes for concern is alcohol consumption levels that are the highest in the world, with some areas topping an average of 15 liters of pure alcohol per person consumed a year. Almost a third of people aged 15 years or older are smokers. Nearly every country in the region is seeing escalating levels of obesity, with about 59 percent of the total population deemed overweight.
While there’s been progress in leveling the healthy-living playing field (the region, as defined by the WHO, includes countries from Spain to Russia, Iceland to Uzbekistan), there are still “significant differences” in measures such as childhood vaccinations as well as overall satisfaction with life.
This mixed bag of health news came as no surprise to locals in Munich, who were enjoying a spell of sunny, warm September weather. Residents young and old flocked to the city’s ubiquitous outdoor beer gardens, where friendly chatter, clanking of beer mugs and cigarette smoke wafted through the air.
Dietmar Schaeffer was at his usual table at the city’s famous Viktualienmarkt outdoor market on Monday afternoon, nursing a half-liter of local Spaten beer. Surrounding him were peddlers of organic juice and fruit, along with others selling bratwurst, schnitzels and giant pretzels.
Schaeffer, a 70-year-old retiree, said he’s eagerly awaiting Oktoberfest, the city’s annual celebration that kicks off Sept. 22. Wistfully, he recalled the day in 1981 when he threw back a personal-record 14 liter-sized mugs of beer in the Lowenbrau brewery’s tent.
“Back then, I went to the festival all 16 days,” he said with a grin. “Now, due to financial realities, I’ll only go 14.”
“To me, beer is a part of the good life,” he said, gazing across the packed array of picnic tables. “And one should live every day like it’s the last.”