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What's the Secret of Japan's Record Life Expectancy? (November 21, 2003)

Older women practice the hula dance. (Jiji)
Japan is the country with the longest life expectancy in the world. Within Japan itself, the longest life expectancy can be found in the Amami Islands, which lie between Kyushu and Okinawa and are part of Kagoshima Prefecture. When Kagoshima Prefecture looked into the reasons why its citizens live so long, it uncovered several factors, including an abundance of minerals in the air people breathe and the water they drink; a diet rich in seafood, seaweed, and brown sugar; and a sense of purpose among the elderly. Apart from moving to the Amami Islands - which is probably impractical - the best advice to people wishing to extend their life spans may be to research what makes the islanders live so long and adopt some of their good habits.

Japanese Women Lead the World Again
According to the most recent data from the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, the average life expectancy in Japan was 78.32 years for men and 85.23 for women in 2002. This was an increase of 0.25 years for men and 0.30 years for women over the previous year and was also the first time that the figure for either gender had exceeded 85 years. Looking at countries around the world, Hong Kong has the longest life expectancy for men at 78.4 years (2001 figure), followed by Japan, and Iceland at 78.1 years (2001 figure). Japan had the highest life expectancy for women, followed by Hong Kong at 84.6 years and Switzerland at 82.6 years (2000 figure).

Even if people do not fall ill, the DNA contained in their cells seems to contain a kind of "program" for an upper limit, and the maximum life expectancy is thought to be unlikely to change without this program being rewritten. Average life expectancy, however, can be extended through such means as the prevention of illnesses, advances in medicine, reducing the number of accidents, and eliminating war. Advanced countries have seen life expectancies roughly double from the end of the eighteenth century, when people lived to between 35 and 40 on average. Average life expectancies exceeding 50 are, in fact, a relatively new phenomenon, and Japan did not reach this level until after World War II. Life expectancy in Japan grew rapidly after that; in the 1980s Japan continually vied with Iceland for the longest life expectancy for men, while Japanese women have held the top spot in the world for eighteen years running.

Life expectancy rose for both men and women in all of Japan's 47 prefectures between 1975 and 2000. During that period, Nagano, Fukui, Kanagawa, Shizuoka, and Gifu Prefectures were in the top 10 for men's life expectancy every year. Okinawa Prefecture ranked at the top for women's life expectancy every year, and the only other prefecture to consistently make the top 10 for women was Okayama. Okinawa ranked in the top 10 for men's life expectancy until 1995 but then suffered something of a slump, including a fall of 0.42 years in men's life expectancy in 2000, and has dropped down the rankings.

Minerals, Fish, and a Sense of Purpose Seen as Key
Within Japan, the Amami Islands are known for being the home of Hongo Kamato, the 116-year-old woman who, until her death in October, was recognized by the Guinness World Records as the oldest person alive, and Izumi Shigechiyo, who passed away in 1986 at the age of 120 years and 237 days. While there are 10.7 centenarians per 100,000 people across the whole of Japan, some areas boast much higher proportions, including Kagoshima Prefecture with 21.52 per 100,000 people, Okinawa Prefecture with 31.19, and Amami with a whopping 56.57. (Figures are an average of the years from 1998 to 2002).

Late last year, in an effort to help create a model for an aging society, Kagoshima Prefecture set out to research the factors that contribute to the longevity of Amami residents. The research examined the natural environment, such as the coastline and the amount of sunlight; the lifestyle choices of individuals, such as nutritional intake; and the social environment, including what roles the elderly play in the local community.

The interim report included the following findings. (1) Because the islands are surrounded by the ocean, the wind is strong, and there are few high mountains causing obstructions, many minerals from the seawater are carried in the air to all parts of the islands. (2) Residents eat a daily average of 97.1 grams of seafood, more than the national average of 92 grams, and many of them consume large amounts of seaweed and brown sugar, both of which are rich in minerals. (3) The tap water has a high mineral content, 94 milligrams per liter compared with a national average of 52.8 milligrams. In addition, many older people in the Amami Islands feel a sense of purpose in taking care of their grandchildren, and seniors there tend to go out often and do a lot of walking, a lifestyle conducive to longevity.

Until her death, Amami resident Hongo followed a pattern of sleeping for two days and staying awake for two days. She also used to drink shochu (a traditional Japanese alcoholic beverage) distilled from brown sugar, which is known to be effective at reducing blood clots, as well as eating brown sugar. Considering the number of Amami residents practicing similarly healthy habits, it would be no surprise if these islands produced further record breakers in the years ahead.

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Related Web Sites
The Amami Islands
Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare
"Life Expectancy at Birth" in Statistics
Guinness World Records

Copyright (c) 2004 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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