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Holocaust Paradox: Long Lives for Those Who Survived (bloomberg.com)
83 points by onetimemanytime 19 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 48 comments

Kind of obvious but can it be simply a selection bias? The weakest died in the camps, the survivors would be the healthier, stronger, and therefore have a longer life expectancy than average.

The question is if it’s just a simple selection bias or did the stress of living under those conditions have had biological effects that are advantageous to longer life span.

We know that cellular stress response and stress proteins have a positive effect on some functions that could induce longer life span, these tend to be most often related to heat and cold shock which is likely one of the key reasons behind why many cultures developed customs that induce heat or cold shock such as sauna and ice dipping.

So my personal bet is that this goes way beyond simple selection bias that pre-selected the fittest and has likely involved biological changes that were favorable for longevity.

The question now is how to identify these changes and mechanisms and replicate them without having to force someone to live through literal hell.

Caloric restriction (extreme dieting) is well known to increase lifespan. Intermittent fasting shows tentative promise.

This is just a guess, but I'd expect that most people who survived the camps did not decide to continue afterwards to eat like they were still there.

Wouldn't that limit the longevity benefits?

It’s possible that a long starvation period has induced lower life time caloric intake just not on the same levels, it could be that the period alone was enough to induce some epigenetic changes I don’t know why it’s being downvoted it could potentially be a cause behind this discrepancy.

Because other historical famines and atrocities don’t seem to yield the same outcome, and because it’s really just tacking a current fad onto the story without anything like evidence. After all, “it’s possible” covers such a huge variety of possibilities that it’s meaningless without statements of likelihood. It is after all possible that I’m an advanced AI, or that your mouse will tunnel a meter to the left. It’s more likely though that I’m just some guy, and your mouse fell off the table.

I’m not sure there is sufficient data to support your hypothesis.

Famines in the modern world are rare, they still exists in some places but those places aren’t exactly stable and have high life expectancy to begin with.

Famines in historic times were both not rare, periodic, and there isn’t nearly enough data to show if there was any benefit to the survivors other than less competition for resources after the famine has subsided.

I’m not sure there has been an event like the holocaust where so many people went on to live what essentially became modern western life with all the advantages it provides as far as life expectancy goes.

I’m not sure there is sufficient data to support your hypothesis. Famines in the modern world are rare, they still exists in some places but those places aren’t exactly stable and have high life expectancy to begin with.

To be clear, mine is the null hypothesis. I suggest that no extraordinary or new information can be gleaned from the life expectancy of Holocaust survivors at present. This constrasts with any claim that this information provides a possible bit of support for the notion that starvation can lead to extended life expectancy.

Famines in historic times were both not rare, periodic, and there isn’t nearly enough data to show if there was any benefit to the survivors other than less competition for resources after the famine has subsided.

Lenin’s USSR between ‘21-‘22 (9 million dead), China in ‘27 (About 3 million dead), Stalin’s Holodomor of Ukraine ‘32-‘34 (8 million dead), Henan, China in ‘43 (5 million dead), Bengal ‘43 (2-3 million dead), Mao’s China ‘58-‘62 (10-30 million dead), The DPRK ‘95-‘99 (about 3 million dead and the lasting negative impact is well studied), and many more from Biafra to Dust Bowl era Oklahoma.

I’m not sure there has been an event like the holocaust where so many people went on to live what essentially became modern western life with all the advantages it provides as far as life expectancy goes.

I agree that it’s hard to find a comparison of people leading a “modern Western life,” but plenty of Holocaust survivors didn’t either. Moreover the negative impacts of starvation are well documented, and “longer life expectancy” isn’t in it. Arrayed against that we have a handful of mouse studies, those very creatures we can cure of cancer... for all that doesn’t apply to us.

Then all the residents of Leningrad would be noticeably longer living than the population of USSR. That didn't happen to my knowledge.

Would a too extreme diet do permanent harm, or is our body used to bouts of near starvation?

The survivor bias makes sense, those that would have died at 65-75 years maybe died then when tested by the hardships.

>Would a too extreme diet do permanent harm

Yes, which is why anorexia is so harmful, and why early intervention for anorexia is so important.

fasting creates autophagy which is a real positive benefit.

In a word: antifragile.

Though could be both antifragility and selection bias at play.

And indeed the article ends with this topic (after also looking at POWs from the American civil war):

> What’s the conclusion, beyond answering a question that has stuck with me for four decades? First and most importantly, it’s not that a traumatic time is anything but hideous. It’s instead that those surviving such an event may be sturdier than others, and by so much that it more than offsets the additional ailments they wind up with. In other words, survivors can wind up living longer than average, but they would presumably have lived even longer in the absence of their gruesome experiences. ...

The interesting part is that they actually aren’t on average healthier, based on hypertension rates at least, but they are still having a longer life expectancy by a whopping 7.1 years in the studied group.

Could it not also have a psychological component. To survive these things, I think in addition to physical robustness, you also need mental toughness to persevere in the face of daily uncertainty. This component may also aid once back in regular society.

> the survivors would be the healthier, stronger, and therefore have a longer life

you didn't read the article. the paradoxical observation is that they live longer despite being particularly not healthy.

This is called survivorship bias, not selection bias.

Survivorship refers to people that engaged in an activity with a chance of "survival" (which could mean actual life or death situations, or things like interviews, school applications, etc.) and did survive have a biased view towards the probability of surviving that activity - usually overestimating the chances of "survival". A classic example is that you might not want to trust it when a professor in a competitive says success in the field is likely with hard work - sure, the professor may have worked hard and succeeded but he's biased towards his own experiences, and is likely not making an honest assessment of the chances of success. Survivorship bias is a form of selection bias: the "survivors" are essentially selecting their own experiences over that of the general population.

Whereas selection bias is when some external factor causes analysis to be focused on a specific subset of the broader population. For instance, survey responses reflect the selection bias of people who were willing to take that survey. Reviews on user-generated review sites are biased towards the people that felt strongly enough to leave a review. The example in this post is selection bias. This is not the opinions of views of individual survivors as in survivorship bias. Rather the study is inherently limited to selecting those that were healthy and fit enough to survive the Holocaust.


>Survivorship bias or survival bias is the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not, typically because of their lack of visibility. This can lead to false conclusions in several different ways. It is a form of selection bias.


Many of the camps were used for slave labor, so I’m doubtful of the validity of this statement.

Anyone interested in the psychology of survivors will likely find "Man's search for meaning" by Viktor Frankl - a psychiatrist and survivor himself an enlihgtening read. What makes man go on, and when will he/she just give up?

Naturally I also thought of this powerful book, that I read almost 30 years ago.

He found that the people that survived the camps were those that had something to live for, whose lives retained some meaning, some value, and that that was more significant than any other factor.

...And I just read his (pretty disturbing) wikipedia page. I hadn't heard any of the 'Controversy' stuff before, of which there is a lot, too much to summarize here. No wonder he's not better-known these days.


Thanks. It seems part of that critique rose out of infighting in the jewish community - Frankl did not want to seek persecution and hence was labeled a traitor to the cause? It sounds like he was treated like a willfull collaborator.

Without more information I can actually relate to both sides of the argument. A person has a only one life. I can totally understand if one wants to just forget and move on.

Regarding logotherapy - lots of people have survived great loss by chasing a higher goal. For example Enrico Fermi dove into physics at a young age after he had lost his beloved brother.

Logotherapy is not philosophy, it's a treatment. It's intellectually dishonest to compare it to a political ideology.

As diagnozed with severe depression recently I can't really fault the idea of trying to find meaning in those pieces of your life that you have left.

The medical experimentation part sound nasty, though. I have no idea what to make of that.

I suppose none of the above changes my view on the subject. The book is a self help book and like all in it's genre should be read with a pinch of salt and not like some deep philosophical guide to life. It's one medicine to deal with personal loss and tragedy. People are really different in terms of what works for them.

The story in the book is still moving one. The fact that Mr. Frankl uses it to also advertize his professional services is fairly obvious, though.

That's exactly what my mind turned to when thinking about this paradox. Perhaps a determined will can lead to longer life?

Man's Search for Meaning is survivorship bias taken to the absolute extreme. It's meant to serve as advertising for Frankl's Logotherapy ideas which I believe are actively harmful. Do take a look at the links posted in other comments.

the book is particularly interesting for the descriptions of the cruel social dynamics among the camp prisoners. that is an aspect a not Jewish German could never write about without facing serious allegations.

Seems pretty obvious to me. People who survive such conditions are probably stronger and more resistant on average.

It's possible, but it also seems likely to me that such an event would totally devastate a person, and that we don't hear much from devastated people.

Because they already died? So add survivorship bias into the mix along with the role of the holocaust as a kind of hellish crucible for fitness?

The most observed behavior among the longest lived is radical independence. It isn't wild to suggest surviving a holocaust death camp would make a person more independently minded. Conversely, most people take this for granted while craving conveniences at every turn.

I learned to program JavaScript more confidently on my first Afghanistan deployment. Being able to work offline without references or tools was important when I was constantly on the move. Even to this day portability and performance are the things I value most in an application. Most other JavaScript developers I have encountered in the real world need a mountain of third party libraries and frameworks with a fixed internet connection for the simplest of things.

My grandmother was survivor and died few months ago as 95 years old. To be honest I havent seen any radical independence traits or much impact caused by that period, she was around 20 when in camp which might help as body and mind might heal better while young. She had nice and quiet life as farmer, retired as 75 years old doing hard work in freezing cold or under hot sun every single day. She used bicycle each day till 88 or something.

Somebody mentioned gulag, my grandfather was send there as political prisoner, working in uran mines. His health was impacted and he died relatively early.

How you live is more interesting than how long you live imho.

The former is harder to measure and we live in an age were people over-weigh easy to measure things which makes for all kinds of misguided conclusions.

Don't dismiss Convenience. There will always be more people who need it than don't. Focus instead on what kind of convenience you can provide that crowd and your impact is guaranteed.

In addition to the other cm2187's accurate observation that this may be literal survivor bias, the other potential explanation is whether the control group was well designed.

Israel is currently ~50% Sephardic Jews, descendants from Middle Eastern/North African peoples. Holocaust survivors are almost all Ashkenazi Jews (European ancestors). If the study was comparing Ashkenazi Jews in the test group vs a control group that was majority Sephardic, it's possible the differences in lifetime was due to some cultural or genetic differences between the two groups.

The study doesn't seem to account for this confounding variable.

The control group was drawn from Jews who were born in Palestine between 1911 and 1945. I think it's likely that this group would likely have been almost entirely Ashkenazi Jews, because there was substantial emigration of European Jews into Palestine prior to World War II.

See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aliyah.

(It's not relevant to your point, but although Sephardic Jews are not Ashkenazi Jews, not all non-Ashkenazi Jews are Sephardic. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mizrahi_Jews.)

Actually many Sephardi Jews already lived in Israel at that time, having come during the Ottoman period.

The control group is people born in Israel from 1911 to 1945, which would make them mostly Ashkenazi since most Sephardic immigration occured after this period.

cm's observation is not correct within the context of the article as cm's observation is based on superior health which is refuted by the text.

what fraction of the pre WWII population in palestine was non-jewish?

Some of those who are still alive were like 2 when they left. I doubt it had as much impact on them as, say, the 20-somethings who both starved and were forced into labor.

Too many unknowns. For example holocaust survivals received yearly reparations from Germany (not only death camps survivals but even displaced ones). Did it help them somehow, less financial stress? It sure helped my grandmother I believe. What about Gulag system survivals, do we see the same effect?

Consistent with the meme that the reason people lived longer after the Great Depression was because they had caloric restricted for years.


This seems like a misuse of the word paradox.


Do you mean when they were annihilated in the gas chambers?

This sounds... wrong. Can you provide a reference?

There was a recent story about how the inmates in the camps received the best healthcare available in German society at the time. That would certainly explain why so many years later we still hear about "new" survivors.

I’d love a link to this “recent story” which sounds distressingly like a very old and discredited claim of Holocaust deniers.

Unfortunately, a quick peek through GP's post history does suggest that's quite possibly their source.

"race is genetic", "Why are white men the only source of trouble", "Saudi Arabia donates to clinton"

Yups, all trademark comments of a wandering soul trying to "humanize" the holocaust. Please don't let HN become reddit

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