As Japan celebrates its annual ‘Respect the Aged Day’ today, it will be especially proud that its number of centenarians has now passed the 50,000 mark. As of Saturday, the number of centenarians living in the country was recorded as 51,476; over three thousand more than last year.
Japan has long been known to be high up in the life expectancy tables, with an estimated lifetime of 85.9 years for women and 79 years for men in 2011. This latest information has however also established its place as a world leader in terms of numbers of centenarians. With just 153 people aged over 100 in Japan in 1963, this figure has rocketed in the last 40 years, and Japan is now expected to be home to over 270,000 centenarians by 2050 (although some sources suggest that the figure will in fact be close to 1 million).
Women account for 87% of the country’s centenarians, although the oldest person, Jiroemon Kimura, a supercentenarian at 115, is a man. He is also the world’s oldest living man.
In contrast, a 2010 study by the UK government revealed that only around 12,640 of the country’s population have reached or passed the magic number 100. Although there has been a huge increase from just 1,080 centenarians in the country in 1970, the current figure still falls far below that of Japan, even given differences in population sizes (the UK having a population of around half of that of Japan).
So, what can we learn about the Japanese secrets for longer life? The secrets, it turns out, are not so secret after all. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that the traditional low-fat Japanese diet of rice, fish, green tea and soy products such as tofu is more conducive to longevity than the high-fat, high-salt, high-speed diet favoured by the Western world. Likewise, it is clear that the Japanese emphasis on physical activity throughout life and well into old age (with the Ministry of Health having devised walking targets for all different age groups) is leading the population further down the road to immortality than countries such as the UK which struggle to get even its children to achieve a minimum target of weekly exercise.
What is perhaps less well-publicised in the discussion is the link between socio-economic conditions and increased life expectancy. In Japan, there is a cultural emphasis on community and in a country where high proportions of many communities are now 65 and over, this creates a virtuous circle; stronger community ties: longer life. Longer life: older population. Older population: more opportunity to build strong community ties with retired peers. The state also plays a crucial role in the survival of older generations, and poverty is very uncommon in the elderly. In Japan, healthcare for the aged is affordable and the retired enjoy generous pensions, enabling them to lead a more relaxed post-work existence.
The relative affluence of Japan’s senior citizens may soon be set to change however as Japan looks towards pension reforms all too familiar to its British counterparts. By 2030, the over-65s will account for almost 30% of the projected population and the country is expected to struggle to support its fast-growing ageing population financially. Although the government has been slow in introducing cuts, (as far back as 2004 Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi planned to make pension system “secure for 100 years,” by making gradual benefit cuts, which were never implemented) it remains to be seen whether financial stability for the elderly will last, or whether the Japanese reputation for longevity can survive on a healthy diet alone.
Sources include: The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post
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