What is it about the Japanese that allows them to outlive everyone else on the planet? Plenty of scientific studies have been conducted with the aim of trying to answer that question. Is there something in the Japanese lifestyle that does the trick? Is the factor a genetic one? Can it be replicated? Does it have to do with unique aspects of the diet, which includes generous amounts of fish and matcha tea? Finally, what can non-Japanese do to avail themselves of the longevity secrets of this ancient, healthy nation?
While several studies point to the Japanese diet as the primary factor that promotes long life, there are a host of other components of the equation. In addition to diet, it appears that genetics, healthcare, lifestyle and social interaction are key areas that each contribute in some way to the extra years.
When one looks at the obvious differences between the Japanese and Western societies, there are some clues about longevity. For one thing, Westerners tend to eat much more food on a daily basis. Japanese people also exercise more than their Western counterparts, taking part in yoga, tai chi, walking and bicycling more frequently. Plus, Japanese are more social, spending more time visiting with neighbors and friends than Westerners do, especially when compared to Americans. Social interaction appears to play a very crucial role in the long-term health of humans.
Japanese people are fortunate to carry a pair of genes that help prevent various kinds of diseases. These so-called “health genes” are not equally distributed among the Japanese population, but enough of the country’s inhabitants possess them to make genetics a factor in longevity, in all likelihood.
The Japanese government enacted national healthcare more than a half-century ago. With hospitals and doctors more available to all people in the country, rather than just those who can afford a medical plan, Japanese residents enjoy some of the best medical attention of any country in the world. Without breaking the national bank, the national healthcare plan sees to it that every adult and child has access to reliable medical treatment at no cost, except what each citizen pays via the national taxation system.
The Japanese have some of the highest consumption rates of fucoidans and taurine in the world. These two substances occur in high concentrations in seaweed and fish, respectively. After World War II, however, many Japanese began to slowly switch to a Western diet, rich in meats and less seafood, and higher in fat.
Even so, there are at least two aspects of the Japanese diet that come in for criticism according to most modern medical standards. Those are the typically high salt intake of the average Japanese person, along with the consumption of refined foods (think white rice). Regardless, even a cursory look at the diet of an average Japanese adult has much to be envied by the typical Westerner. The incredible health benefits of eating fish and keeping the daily intake of fat at a low level are key areas where the Japanese diet far outstrips that of most other nations in the industrialized world.
The Japanese way, as evidenced by the precepts of the national historic religion, Shinto, is that of cleanliness and health. It is a Shinto principle that the body as well as the mind should be kept clean, especially when one takes part in social activities. Part of that belief system leads the Japanese to seek out medical help when they need it, in contrast to many in Western nations who avoid doctors and hospitals altogether. Closely related to the national healthcare system, the unique mindset of the people is one of body maintenance and medical vigilance.
The Japanese are known for their socialization skills. Compared to Western societies, the nation is incredibly cohesive, with economic and educational equality much closer to an ideal state than in most nations of the world, even Asian ones. Group-oriented attitudes are an effective yet subtle way that the Japanese people take care of each other. For example, neighbors and friends in Japan are treated more like family members than in the West. Japanese neighborhoods resemble social clubs more than anything else, which leads to a camaraderie that engenders healthful living and an attitude of “looking out for one another.”
The Japanese are far from perfect, but the fact that they have some of the highest longevity rates in the world is a fact that cannot be ignored. Residents of Nagano Prefecture, for example, live to be 87.2 years old on average (for women) and 80.9 years (for men).
While there is no single “secret” to the question of Japanese longevity, one can at least begin to make a list that includes some of the healthy practices that lead to longer life. First of all, do as the Japanese do and eat lots of vegetables and fish.
- Exercise in moderation, especially trying to incorporate walking, yoga and bicycle riding into the daily routine.
- Make it a point to seek out social interaction. Join a club for which you can be a worthy contributor and whose activities interest you. This could be done through a church group, a sports team or a common-interest club of any kind.
- Don’t smoke, overeat, or consume too much junk food or salt. Those who drink alcohol should do so do so in moderation and as long as they do not have a tendency to develop an addiction. Coffee and matcha tea, when consumed in moderation, are also a good part of a healthy diet.
Adding at least a few of the above practices into one’s lifestyle will almost certainly help, and definitely won’t hurt. In fact, lessons learned from the Japanese longevity studies are things that doctors have been advising people to do for at least a century. All of which goes to support the logic behind an old adage: “When you have your health, you have just about everything.”