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Hong Kong, Macao

Hong Kongers tell us how to live longer

Eat low-fat steamed foods, make use of herbal medicines, don't smoke

People shop for dried foods and herbal medicines in Hong Kong's Sai Ying Pun district.   © Photo by Yasuo Awai

HONG KONG -- This place gives off its share of negative perceptions: It is overpopulated; its workplaces brim with stress; the wealth gap yawns. Now add a positive statistic: Its citizens enjoy the world's longest life expectancy.

According to Japan's health ministry, the average life expectancy for newborn girls here in 2015 was 87.32 years; for boys, it was 81.24 years.

These figures refer to the average number of years newborns can expect to live if mortality patterns remain constant throughout their lives. Life expectancy is widely recognized as a key indicator of health care and welfare standards.

So what are Hong Kongers' secrets?

Medicine and diet

"Every day we have soup for dinner, some of the soup have different function for our well-being," says 60-year-old Rosanna Yeung Yuk-ying. Locals in Hong Kong and other southern regions of China typically consume traditional herbal soups at least once a day. The soups contain various medicinal herbs along beef and chicken. 

But she'd rather have fish and vegetables when she gets sick. "According to some Chinese remedies, for instance, I avoid eating soup which contains chicken or beef as these kind of soup are not suitable for sick people," the Hong Kong woman said.

Some non-Chinese might think that Chinese dishes are fatty and greasy. But the Cantonese-style food that is typical in the territory uses little fat and is often steamed.

According to Jockey Club Institute of Ageing at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the average body mass index for Hong Kongers is 21.2, less than the 24.7 average in Japan and below the 25 mark that indicates obesity. The index is a weight-to-height ratio that can indicate fitness, or obesity.

Jean Woo, a professor at the institute said Japanese and Hong Kong people have similar eating habits -- rice and soybeans are common in both diets, fast food and meat less so.

Also, Hong Kongers for the most part stay away from high alcohol content beverages like baijiu, a grain liquor, and shaoxing rice wine, which are popular in Beijing and other parts of northern China. It the territory, it is more common to have Chinese tea or warmed water while dining out, occasionally beer or wine.

Good health care

Hong Kong does not have public health care insurance. But locals can receive high-quality medical services at low cost at public hospitals and clinics. Holders of Hong Kong's so-called "identity cards" are charged fixed rates of 100 Hong Kong dollars ($12.88) for an initial visit to a hospital and HK$100 a day for inpatient care. At private hospitals, though, this kind of service could easily run into the hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong dollars.

At the public hospitals, people often have to wait for hours for outpatient services. But these hospitals also use a triage system: Those in greater need get to see a doctor before someone with a minor condition who has been waiting longer.

And a popular alternative exists -- herbal medicine doctors. Hong Kongers with colds will often go to an herbalist rather than wait out the day at a public hospital.

The metropolis has 7,000 registered herbal medicine doctors. In addition, the special administrative region is quite small, so a hospital or care giver is never far away.

Few smokers

Public health specialists point to Hong Kong's low smoking rate as to why the city's life expectancy is so high. Among those 15 and older, 10.6% of the population smokes daily, roughly half of Japan's 19.6% rate.

Since 1983, the Hong Kong government has been steadily increasing restrictions on smoking. In 2007, it banned smoking in all indoor gathering places, like bars and restaurants, except for designated areas.

It has also significantly raised the cigarette tax. A pack of cigarettes costs HK$50 or so today.

Lam Tai-hing, a professor at the School of Public Health of the University of Hong Kong, says that discouraging smokers is the quickest and most effective way to extend life in more developed economies. "The benefits in reducing heart attacks and other cardiovascular deaths can be observed within a few years, whereas the reduction in lung cancer will take longer," the professor said.


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