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Adversity Could Lead to a Longer Life, Holocaust Study Reports

Update Date: Aug 02, 2013 03:44 PM EDT

For people who are put through terrible conditions and unfortunate situations, the levels of pain and stress that they experienced are incomparable. Some people might succumb to these emotions and start engaging in risky behaviors. Several studies have found that children who were abused are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. Despite these studies, a new one reported that people who survived the horrible events that took place during the Holocaust had a longer life expectancy than people who did not face adversity during World War II.

"Holocaust survivors not only suffered grave psychosocial trauma but also famine, malnutrition, and lack of hygienic and medical facilities, leading us to believe these damaged their later health and reduced life expectancy," the authors wrote. "Surprisingly, our findings teach us of the strength and resilience of the human spirit."

For this study, the lead researcher, Professor Avi Sagi-Schwartz from the Haifa University in Israel looked at data from the National Insurance Institute of Israel. From this data set, the research team was able to analyze 55,220 Polish Jews that were alive during the time Hitler took over Germany. The Jewish people in this study were between three and 20 years old in 1939 when Hitler first invaded Poland.

The researchers found that the Polish Jews who were able to escape before Hitler took over their homes had a life expectancy that was 6.5 months lowered than the compatriots who stayed behind. The researchers calculated that male Holocaust survivors lived up to 18 months longer than people who were not in the Holocaust. The survivors' life expectancy was 14 months longer than others. The researchers noted that for women, life expectancy did not differ greatly between those in the Holocaust and those who were not.

"Men who were 10 to 15-years-old during the war and in their early adolescence had a 10 month longer life-expectancy, compared to the comparison group," Sagi-Schwartz said.

"Men who lived through the Holocaust when they were 16 to 20, had an even bigger difference in life-expectancy, 18 months longer than their peers with no Holocaust experience. The results of this research give us hope and teach us quite a bit about the resilience of the human spirit when faced with brutal and traumatic events."

The researchers explained that their findings go against previous belief that trauma shortens life. According to that theory, trauma damages DNA by shortening the DNA's chromosomal ends. These ends are responsible in determining the lifespan of cells, and when damaged would logically lead to a shorter life expectancy. However, in the case of Holocaust survivors, the researchers found that trauma led to stronger spirits, a phenomenon they are calling  "post-traumatic growth."

This study was published in PLOS ONE

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