Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Why do the Japanese live so long?

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.

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.


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. Full story...

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