Why French People Live a Half-Decade Longer

America vs. France: Who Lives a Better Life?

Dave Smurthwaite
Dec 11, 2019 · 6 min read

There’s something downright dysfunctional when it comes to the relationship between America and France.

Almost a full century ago, a French academic by the name of André Siegfried penned that “France occupies a place apart in the United States, No other country … is more passionately loved, and none is more disparaged or harshly condemned. It seems that there is always an excess in either direction, that either illusion or deep disappointment is alternately dominant.”

Kathleen Finn, an American contemporary, brought the analogy closer to home, observing that “The French and Americans are like brothers or sisters who are so similar that they irritate one another.”

Looking back on my conservative Midwest American upbringing, it easy to see this sibling rivalry at play. Less-intelligent blondes aside, there was no other group of people so beloved by poor joke writers as the French.

Q: What’s the shortest book ever written?

A: French War Victories.

Q: How many Frenchman does it take to guard Paris?

A: Nobody knows, it’s never been tried before.

At the same time as they’re guffawing at bad jokes, Americans are not-so-secretly obsessed with how the French dress, what wine they drink, what bread and cheese they eat, why their babies are so well-behaved, and why their women never get fat.

In many ways, France and America have long been two frenemies living on polar opposites since the bloody births of their nations. Furthermore, historically speaking, there are few country relationships packed with as much baggage as a prime-time soap opera.

For crying out loud, the crowning symbol of the United States, the Statue of Liberty, came not from the Americans, but as a housewarming gift from the French. And, as far as I’m aware, France is the only national cuisine that Americans have targeted in recent times of war, stripping the “French” out fries during the war in Iraq faster than a European sunbather can remove her top on the Riveria.

World-alerting events aside, one needs only look at the everyday humdrum to see two countries with very different approaches to life. From the dining table to the work desk; the classroom to the doctor’s office, Americans and French live life on opposite sides of the spectrum, which fuels equal fires of jealousy and admiration.

But who, at the end of the day, lives life better?

The part with tables and numbers

I’m no data scientist, it seems like the most obvious place to begin to examine a country’s quality of life would be to examine how long it takes for people to stop living there.

According to The World Bank, the average French person will be “smelling the pine,” as they say in France, around age 82 while in America we tend to “kick the bucket” at age 78.

France 1, United States 0.

Now let’s get nitty-grittier by inspecting a few of the world’s top causes of death to see where America and France rank:

8 / 9 / 10 / 11

France 2, United States 0*
*judges decision based on total age-standardized deaths, combined with higher obesity and diabetes prevalence

When it comes to the world’s leading health threats, especially cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes, the United States clearly leads the funeral procession. As seen above, the rates in the US are twice that of France for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

In addition, there’s a sizeable gap in obesity rates between the countries, however health experts point out that the gap is shrinking as the French adopt a more, shall we say, “Amer-we-can” approach to eating.

While the myriad of variables leading to these health statistics is complicated and cannot exclude genetics, there’s a decent pile of evidence linking how we live to how we die.

Let’s take Number One and Two on the World Health Organization’s most wanted killers: Coronary heart disease and stroke, sometimes lumped together with a few more of their deadly gang called CVD (cardiovascular disease).

What are a few of the main risk factors that would lead you to be killed by these nasties? According to health experts at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic, you can start with the following most unwanted:

  • Poor Diet
  • Physical inactivity

Poor Diet & The Land of Free (Refills)

In the United States, diet and death go hand in hand. In 2017, a study was released in the United States that linked poor diet decisions to premature death:

Nearly half of all deaths from heart disease, stroke and diabetes in the United States are associated with diets that skimp on certain foods and nutrients, such as vegetables, and exceed optimal levels of others, like salt, a new study finds.

Using available studies and clinical trials, researchers identified 10 dietary factors with the strongest evidence of a protective or harmful association with death due to “cardiometabolic” disease.

“It wasn’t just too much ‘bad’ in the American diet; it’s also not enough ‘good,’” said lead author Renata Micha.

From portion sizing to sugar percentages, Americans beat the crap out of the French when it comes to eating poorly.

Interestingly, in France they treat overeating with the same degree of moral concern as we treat smoking in America. Advertisements promoting snacks on TV and radio are required to end with public service warnings on the hazards of snacking. Take a trip to McDonald's and you’ll see big white labels at the bottom of their tantalizing food posters, not unlike what you’d see on cigarette boxes, that state: “Warning: Avoid snacking. Eating too many sugars, salts, or fats can be harmful to your health.”

France 3, United States 0

Physical Inactivity

In a study conducted by the World Health Organization, it was found that, in 2016, 40% of American adults were “less-active” while in France that percentage was 29.3%.

What does it mean to be less-active? According to WHO, it meant adults who had less than 2.5 hours of moderately intense activity over the course of the week OR less than 75 minutes of vigorously-intense physical activity.

What are the main contributors to France’s higher activity?

In one word, walking.

Historically and culturally, France and Europe enjoy a long healthy tradition of getting around on foot. Although rates have unfortunately been dropping in recent years, Europe’s stats still tower over the United States.

Cycling and walking share of daily trips in Europe, North America, and Australia

When we arrived in France four years ago, we would regularly see people walking through the fields surrounding our home. Often, there would be entire packs of walkers roaming the hills. They were like deer — if you saw one, there would undoubtedly be two or three more close by.

Contrast this to the United States, where walking is often seen as a defect. After returning from our first stay in France, I decided I would walk to work every day — a distance of just under two miles.

Friends from my neighborhood would regularly stop in their cars to ask if I’d like a ride. They’re be visually flummoxed when I’d decline, unable to register why one might prefer to use their feet when you could instead hop in a car.

France 4, United States 0

Obviously, in the real world, individual life expectancy can’t be boiled down to this simple of a scorecard. There is a myriad of other factors at play, including the complexities of genetics, that contribute to how soon we’ll smell the pine and/or kick the bucket.

However, it’s hard to ignore such obvious gaps in lifestyles. It’s also easy to see, given France’s superior figures, why Americans might feel equal measures of disdain and jealousy towards their brothers (and sisters) of another mother.

Perhaps, just perhaps, there are a few things we could learn from the French.

If it wasn’t a matter of life and death, it might be worth a few bad jokes.

Here’s my free guide to having a traveler’s mindset even when you’re at home


Encouraging meaningful travel for a change

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