Japanese women have enjoyed the longest life expectancy in the world for more than two decades, according to newly-released government figures. In 2009, women in Japan could expect to live to a record average of 86.4 years – up almost five months from the previous year.
Experts attribute the extraordinary longevity of Japanese women to a traditional low-fat diet of fish, rice, simmered vegetables and soy products, easy access to healthcare and a comparatively high standard of living in old age. Eriko Maeda, a Japanese woman of 69, echoes these sentiments, accrediting her health in old age to her lifestyle and saying that:
‘I never eat meat and I avoid fried food… with the occasional exception. I eat lots of oily fish, like mackerel and sardines, I’ve never smoked and I hardly ever drink.’
Maeda can expect to live for another two decades and, if she is typical, Japanese women will continue to outlive the rest of us. Diet aside, there is no shortage of possibilities to explain the life expectancy rates in Japan. The Japanese Health Ministry cites improvements in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, cardiac disorders and strokes, the country’s biggest killers, as part explanation of the upward trend. Universal health insurance, achieved …
… in the early 1960s, has no doubt also had an impact.
Takao Suzuki, general director of the National Institute of Geriatrics and Gerontology in Nagoya, believes that Japan’s almost perfect literary rate is also a factor, saying that:
‘There is no illiteracy, even among people aged 70 and over. Older people are able to consume a huge amount of health and lifestyle advice in the media, and they are very sensitive about information on health problems, so I would say education is one of the important factors.’
In addition to near-universal literacy assisting with health education, the elderly in Japan are encouraged to take regular exercise – the government has devised walking targets for different age groups, which are well-publicized. The government also encourages people of all ages to have regular health checkups, and speaks proudly of its network of health workers (both paid and voluntary), who make regular house calls to the elderly.
Lifetime employment and a generous state pension scheme are also though to contribute – these remove much of the stress experienced by workers in more unstable job markets like Europe and the U.S. and, as a result, produce a healthier retirement-age population.
Whilst I think it’s fantastic that Japanese women (and men – life expectancy is currently 79.5 for Japense males) have such fantastic life expectancy, I do foresee problems with the rates – if left unaddressed, the advanced age of the population, combined with Japan’s low birth rate, could well lead to ballooning healthcare costs, difficulties with pensions and possibly even a labour shortage – all things that could endanger Japan’s economic status.
That said, however, the health and longevity of the Japanese could definitely teach other countries, where life expectancy is significantly lower, some lessons. Though the Japaneses are not alone in reaping the benefits of economic development (greater variety of food, higher incomes, more leisure choices, advanced social security / health care), they’re certainly doing something right, and indeed better, than the rest of the world.