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Why Andorrans live longer

By Paul Henley
BBC News, Andorra

It is a classic Pyrenean scene.

A man tends cows in the mountains of Andorra
Andorra boasts the world's longest life expectancy

High on the French-Andorran border, desolate mountain peaks are still green in the last warmth of clear autumn skies. There is the sound of cowbells and the occasional shout, in Catalan, from farmers rounding up white cattle, ready to herd them down into the valleys for winter shelter.

But there is something slightly different about these farmers.

Almost all of them, I notice as they chase the animals across scree slopes and shove them into wooden pens, are older than you might expect. In fact, there is barely one under pensionable age. Clearly, I was not misled about older Andorrans leading an active life.

Not every citizen of Andorra these days toils up and down mountains as part of their daily existence.

Today's population, larger than it has ever been at 83,000, is more likely to work in some tourist-related industry or in a bank.

But they can all reasonably anticipate being alive well into their eighties.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Andorrans' average life expectancy is 83.5, officially the highest in the world. People in their late nineties are not unusual in the principality.

Andorra is rich, but with a lower per capita income than neighbouring France and less well-off than very many countries where people die younger.

But even a short visit here provides some explanations for their extraordinary longevity.

Recipes for health

Take, for example, the issue of physical exercise.

Paul Henley visits Andorra's public swimming pool

Andorra has seven parishes and seven state-of-the-art public leisure centres (there are many more private ones).

I visit a water aerobics class provided free of charge for older women in an Olympic-sized swimming pool in one such centre.

Free transport is provided there from the town centre every 15 minutes during the day.

The women in the class look at me as if I am a bit mad when I ask why they are there.

"What is more important than keeping yourself fit?" asks one.

"If you don't keep your body moving, you won't keep your mind in shape," said another woman approaching 70, who used to work as a cook. She attends the class once a week and regularly goes to the gym.

"There's no point in spending your retirement shut up at home."

At La Guingueta, a restaurant just outside the capital La Vella, head chef Fabrice Cesar describes the kind of food that goes down best.

"Most of the dishes I produce in my kitchen are based on a simple formula," he says.

"Lean meat and fresh fruit and vegetables, lots of olive oil - things that are good for the heart, classic Mediterranean fare. Customers are interested in healthy food and they can tell what is healthy."

Peace and cigarettes

Andorra's hospital has the air of a private clinic but it is not.

Luis Pallares, surgeon
Years ago, we didn't consider operating on some patients in their eighties and nineties
Luis Pallares,
consultant surgeon

Besides the clean air and stunning mountain views from every window, Andorrans have what the WHO ranks as the third-best public health system in the world to maintain them.

Consultant surgeon Luis Pallares says he is increasingly used to caring for very elderly patients.

"What has changed," he says, "is that, years ago, we didn't consider operating on some patients in their eighties and nineties. Now, we are doing that and the outcomes are often very successful.

"They go back to their normal lives. And a very frequent question, before the operation, is 'how soon will I be able to walk in the mountains again, to tend to my garden, to go into the woods and gather mushrooms?'."

Minister and government spokesman, Juli Minoves, is quietly proud of his compatriots' longevity but not particularly surprised by it.

He thinks attitude is just as important as altitude here.

He points out the almost non-existent crime levels in Andorra, that there is a single prison with about 50 inmates.

And he puts a general feeling of well-being and security partly down to seven centuries of war-free history.

"So many years of peace, no army," he says.

"I think that gives a lot of peace of mind to people. I think there is a psychological factor here, a feeling of safeness that people start to absorb from the moment they are born. Plus, there is a long tradition of democracy, of solving conflict in an amicable way."

Whatever the definitive Andorran recipe for longevity, abstinence from tobacco and alcohol does not seem to feature in it.

Cigarettes are apparently smoked everywhere. They are available duty free for around two euros (1.55; $2.75) a packet in every second shop.

And Andorra's favourite drink, red wine, is appreciated even in the hospital canteen.

Even many of the most elderly Andorrans have clearly not lost their appetite for life's unhealthy indulgences.


SEE ALSO
Japan centenarians at record high
12 Sep 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Andorra
10 Jul 08 |  Country profiles

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