Peter R. Orszag is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He is vice president of investment banking at Lazard. He was Director of the Office of Management and Budget from 2009 to 2010 and Director of the Budget Office of Congress from 2007 to 2008.

Read more opinion

Photographer: Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Photographer: Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Sunday was Holocaust remembrance day, which made me think of an affirmation that I heard from a primary school teacher. She added that even those who survived the Holocaust were so weak that their lives would be short. As for many things that I learned in elementary school, the reality is more complicated and my 10 year old would be happy to know that my teacher was probably more wrong than right.

Living a horrific event, such as confinement in a concentration camp or POW camp, creates health problems serious enough to shorten the lives of most people. But those who survive also seem to have other characteristics – perhaps a stronger immune system and a more optimistic outlook than the general population – that tend to make people live longer. New research suggests that such resilience can often overcome scars.

The most comprehensive evidence on Holocaust survivors comes from a new analysis of the JAMA publication by the American Medical Association, conducted by a team of Israeli researchers. He compared the Holocaust survivors born in Europe between 1911 and 1945, who later moved to Israel, to people born in Palestine during the same period. The sample included more than 38,000 Holocaust survivors and a control group of nearly 35,000 Israelis born on the territory that became their country in 1948. Survivor and control group data come from health services Maccabi, who provide health insurance to about one group. quarter of the Israeli population.

The results show that camp survivors had higher rates of hypertension, cancer, dementia and obesity than natives of the same age and sex. For example, 83% of the survivors were hypertensive, compared to 67% of the control group. It is unclear whether the Holocaust story was at the root of these differences, but they are consistent with what I said.

Surprisingly, although their health was worse, the Holocaust survivors lived 7.1 more years – their average age at death was 85, compared to 78 in the control group . These differences persist even after adjusting for socio-economic status (Holocaust survivors tend to be poorer than their contemporaries), sex, and other factors. Another research has also found a longer life among survivors.

Economist Dora Costa of the University of California at Los Angeles studied prisoners of war during the Civil War and achieved similar results, albeit with more nuance. Costa's analysis examines former Union Army soldiers detained as POWs during the war and separately evaluates the period prior to the middle of 1863 (when l. Union and Confederation exchanged prisoners and conditions were better in the camps) and then (when trade largely stopped and conditions deteriorated). Remarkably, less than 5% of prisoners of war captured before July 1863 died in captivity, compared to 27% of those captured later.

Costa finds different effects depending on the age at the time of capture and the date on which it occurred. Thirty-five years later, former prisoners of war aged 30 or older at the time of capture had a better survival rate than other soldiers, even if they had been captured after the deterioration of living conditions. in prisoner of war camps. Former POWs younger than 30 years and captured after the middle of 1863 had lower subsequent survival rates, however, and the effect was due to higher mortality from heart disease.

What about children of survivors? The Israeli team speculates that their findings "could be important for understanding the favorable figures for life expectancy in Israel, because the genetic characteristics of Holocaust survivors could be associated with the long-term health of their children."

But Costa, in collaboration with Noelle Yetter and Heather DeSomer of the National Bureau of Economic Research, recently studied the children of the former war prisoners of the American Civil War. They found that the sons of former POWs captured after the middle of 1863 died earlier than the sons of non-POWs or prisoners of war captured earlier. There was no effect for girls. For yarns, the impact was lower for sons born late in the calendar year. (The authors speculate that this is because mothers have better access to food during pregnancy for these children.)

What is the conclusion, beyond the answer to a question that has been with me for four decades? First and foremost, it's not that a traumatic moment is anything but horrible. On the contrary, those who survive such an event may be more robust than others, and to such an extent that they more than compensate for the additional ills they cause. In other words, survivors may end up living longer than average, but they would probably have lived even longer in the absence of their terrible experiences. Second, the effects of extreme events can be passed on to future generations: Regardless of the effect on survivors, evidence of the civil war suggests that their children could pay the price.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Peter R. Orszag at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at

Before being here, it's at the Bloomberg terminal.