On April 1, Misao Okawa, the oldest living person in the world, died of natural causes at a nursing home in Osaka, Japan. Born in 1898, she was 117 at the time of her death. Okawa held the title of oldest living person for just over 2 years. It was previously owned by Jiroemon Kimura of Kyoto, who died when he was 115.

There is a stereotype about East Asians, particularly Japanese, living long lives, but does it have a basis in fact? While Okawa and Jiroemon certainly support the East Asian longevity hypothesis, it is by no means only Asians who live unusually long lives. Previous to Jiroemon, it was Christian Mortensen of Denmark who was the oldest living person. And we must remember that the oldest documented person in history was France’s Jeanne Calment, who lived to the ripe old age of 122.


Japanese women live the longest. Pic: Mr Hicks46 (Flickr CC)

Of course these impressive individuals are only outliers. It is interesting and perhaps insightful to listen to old peoples’ self professed reasons for living a long time — from daily exercise to never overeating to having religious faith. But the best hope for real answers lies in measurable factors like statistics.

Majid Ezzati, an associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and one of the study’s authors, said that Asians as a whole have a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and liver disease. Some of the risk factors for those diseases, such as smoking, binge drinking, obesity and high cholesterol, are less prevalent in the Asian community. But exact causes of longevity remain a mystery.

Source: (New York Times)

On Average, the Japanese Live the Longest

2012 data from the World Health Organization ranks Japan as having the highest life expectancy at 86.2 years — 85 for men and 87.3 for women, followed by Andorra (84.2), Singapore (84), Hong Kong (83.8) and San Marino (83.5). So it is in fact wealthy East Asian and Mediterranean countries that lead, though the rest of the top 10 is rounded out by Iceland, Italy, Sweden, Australia and Switzerland, a pretty mixed bag of developed nations.

It is somewhat obvious that diet, an advanced and widely available medical system, as well as peace and stability, are strong factors on the international level. But what is it about Japan in particular that puts it at the top of the list? Could it be as simple as eating healthily, keeping active and even working into old age as some Japanese doctors suggest?

Aren’t we taught that highly stressful, work-focused lifestyles are bad for health?

For years Japan’s retirement age was 55. Now it is usually 60, but many retirees continue to work in some capacity. The difference is the jobs they tend to do are part time or less intensive. So “retirement” in Japan has a different meaning than it does in other countries.

longevity japan

Okinawa — a nice place to grow old

In Japan, children also traditionally support their parents during old age, easing the stressful burden of struggling to make ends meet. This can be in financial terms, but it often comes in the form of personal assistance. Perhaps living out your years at home with frequent familial contact is more conducive for longevity than spending time in institutional care homes and hospitals.

If you’re lonely in this country, it takes about eight years off your life expectancy as compared with the most connected people. In Okinawa, they traditionally don’t have to worry about loneliness because when you’re a child, you’re put by your parents into these moais. It can be defined as a committed social network that lasts a long time: a personal board of directors.

— Dan Buettner, author, The Blue Zones Solution

While perhaps we cannot arrive at any definitive secrets to longevity, a new book by best-selling author Dan Buettner argues that it’s mostly diet, with sex, naps, wine and friendship helping out along the way.

Buettner studied the lifestyles of famous old agers on the Greek island of Ikaria as well as Okinawa, Japan and other, what he calls “blue zones”, where populations tend to live longer. While his answers may not be definitive, they are certainly worth looking into, especially as they link happiness with longevity. After all, who wants to live for a long time if you can’t be happy doing it?