The secrets of Japan's high life expectancy

It’s 1963 and in an office in Tokyo, government officials are trying to find out how many centenarians there are in Japan.  Their answer? 153.

Fast-forward to today, and the same record shows 60,000 Japanese citizens aged 100 or older – with the oldest aged 115.

Year after year, Japan has topped the international league tables for life expectancy.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) 1, Japanese women can expect to live to the age of 86 – five years more than their counterparts in the United States. Japanese men can expect to live to 80 – four years more than their American peers.

So why is life expectancy in Japan higher than in other developed countries?

A study published in the spring of 2016 2 concluded that diet was a major factor behind the country’s high life expectancy figures.

The National Centre for Global Health and Medicine in Tokyo3 tracked the eating habits and well-being of nearly 80,000 men and women over the course of 15 years.

They found that people who had closely followed food and dietary guidelines published by the Japanese government in 2005 tended to be in better health than their peers.

The 2005 guidelines recommended the number of “servings per day” of different food types:

       · 5-7 servings of grain-based foods (rice, pasta, noodles, bread)
       · 5-6 servings of vegetables
       · 3-5 servings of meat and fish
       · 2 servings of fruit
       · 2 servings of milk and dairy products

Eating snacks and sweets and drinking alcohol were advised in moderation.

The result was a diet low in saturated fat and with few processed foods, but high in carbohydrates.

“Our findings suggest that balanced consumption of energy, grains, vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, eggs, soy products, dairy products, confectioneries, and alcoholic beverages can contribute to longevity by decreasing the risk of death, predominantly from cardiovascular disease, in the Japanese population,” the researchers concluded.

Older medical studies have proposed other reasons for the long life-span of Japanese men and women.

Papers in the medical journal The Lancet4 credited the Japanese government’s investment in public health in the 1950s and 1960s with creating a health- and hygiene-conscious culture in the country.

This ranged from childhood vaccination programmes and the introduction of universal health insurance, to campaigns to reduce salt consumption, and the use of medication to reduce blood pressure.

Another factor might be the lifestyle that Japan’s older population enjoy. Retirees in Japan stay active, and many older people continue working by choice rather than economic necessity.

Studies of areas such as Kagoshima Prefecture and the Amami Islands 5, which are known for having an even higher life expectancy than the national average, found that living with purpose may also keep people alive longer. It was found that elderly residents of these areas were more involved in the local community and spent more time around younger family members.

So what is the key to longevity? Good diet, regular exercise and a healthy attitude to life, community and family – or so, it seems, is the case in Japan.

Sources:
https://data.oecd.org/healthstat/life-expectancy-at-birth.htm
2http://www.bmj.com/content/352/bmj.i1209
3https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Kayoko_Hayakawa
4http://www.thelancet.com/series/japan
5http://web-japan.org/trends/lifestyle/lif031121.html

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