How can we live longer? You’ll find the answer to this age-old question (pun intended) in Japan. The Japanese life expectancy is the world’s highest, at 87.32 years for women and 81.25 years for men. The average lifespan of the Japanese is the highest it has ever been, and they keep getting older. In 2019, the number of Japanese aged 90 reached 2.31 million, including over 71,000 centenarians. So have the Japanese found the fountain of youth? We delve into Japan’s top secrets to good health and longevity.
“May your food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food”Hippocrates
The Japanese diet is a perfect example of Greek physician Hippocrates’ 5th-century advice and a major reason for their long lifespans.
Their diet is lean and balanced, with staple foods like omega-rich fish, rice, whole grains, tofu, soy, miso, seaweed and vegetables. All these foods are low in saturated fats and sugars and rich in vitamins and minerals that reduce the risk of cancers and heart disease.
Their healthy diet has led to an impressively low obesity rate in Japan, while other countries struggle under the weight of poor diets. Just 4.30% per cent of the Japanese population is obese, compared to 27.80% in the United Kingdom and 36.20% in the United States. Obesity is a major cause of killer diseases like diabetes, cancer and heart disease, so it goes without saying that the Japanese live longer thanks to their healthy diet.
The science backs it up. According to a study published in BMJ, those who followed the Japanese government’s recommended dietary regime had a 15% lower mortality rate than those who didn’t.
And they start young. Japanese schools follow healthy dietary guidelines, with lunches of plenty of fruits and vegetables and very little refined sugar. Learning how to eat a balanced diet from a young age sets them up for good health for the rest of their (likely long!) lives.
Why not try eating like the Japanese and enjoy some fresh sushi or hot udon noodle soup? Your body will thank you for it.
Hands up if you eat dinner on the sofa while watching TV or scrolling through your phone? If that sounds familiar, you’re probably not paying attention to what and how you eat.
A common saying in Japan, ‘hara hachi bun me’, tells people to eat only until they are 80 per cent full. It’s thought to be a Confucian teaching that roughly translates to “eat until you are eight parts full”.
Research shows that microorganisms living in the gut may alter the ageing process, while bad gut health causes an inflammatory response in the body that’s linked to conditions like strokes, dementia and heart disease. The more you eat, the more inflammatory stress you inflict on your body. It usually takes at least 20 minutes for the brain to recognise you’re full, so Japanese people use ‘hara hachi bun me’ as a reminder to stop eating.
Smaller portions and slower eating are also secrets of the long lifespan of the Japanese. At mealtimes, they serve the food onto lots of smaller plates and sit on the floor and eat together. Along with using chopsticks, this makes the whole eating process a lot slower, which also aids digestion.
The secret to living longer isn’t just about what you eat. If you want to live longer, you must focus on how you eat too.
Drinking green tea
The Japanese have been drinking a ton of matcha green tea powder for centuries. And it shows.
This ancient drink is rich in antioxidants that boost the immune system and help prevent cancer. It also helps with digestion, energy levels and regulating blood pressure. The tea even helps to preserve membrane cells and slow cell ageing.
The secret to matcha tea’s powers is in the production process. They deprive the young leaves of sunlight when growing, which increases their chlorophyll and antioxidant content.
The Japanese drink tea several times a day and also practice traditional Japanese tea ceremonies that date back over 1,000 years.
Next time you reach for a cup of coffee, why not try green tea instead? You may just get a lifespan like the Japanese if you drink enough of it.
RELATED CONTENT: Five Japanese cultures and customs we need to protect
We know that a sedentary lifestyle can lead to bad health and a shorter life. Studies have found that over two million Brits will live with four or more chronic illnesses within 20 years because of their inactive lifestyles. The Japanese avoid this by incorporating movement in their everyday lives.
Around 98% of Japanese children walk or cycle to school, while radio’s broadcast rajio taiso (‘gymnastics radio’ that’s like warm-up callisthenics) every morning across Japan. The daily commute is also active, with most people walking or cycling to the train station, standing on the train, then walking to work.
And it’s not that they don’t sit down – they just do it in a healthier way. People often sit on the floor for meals or socialising in a kneeling position known as ‘seiza’. The position involves resting on your shins and tucking your feet underneath your bottom. This helps to maintain strength and flexibility.
Even going to the bathroom incorporates movement in Japan. Traditional Japanese toilets involve squatting, which is healthier for the bowels and your muscles!
The importance of daily physical activity continues well into the latter years of Japanese people. You’ll see many elderly people in Japan still walking or cycling around.
Our suggestion? Start moving more in your daily life, and you may just score your letter from the Queen….
World-class health care
The long lifespan of the Japanese can also be put down to their excellent health care. Japan’s health care system is one of the best in the world (ranked fourth by Bloomberg Efficient Health Care).
Since the 1960s, the government has paid 70 per cent of all health procedures and up to 90 per cent for low-income citizens. They also have advanced medical knowledge and equipment, making Japan the ideal place to get old.
The government has introduced many preventative measures to care for its citizens, such as health screenings in schools and workplaces. Along with government initiatives, good health care is part of Japanese culture. Japanese citizens visit the doctor an average of 13 times a year for checkups. This means that illnesses are more likely to be caught early.
It’s also traditional for people to care for elderly family members rather than sending them to care homes. The psychological benefits of living with your family in old age means that people are happier and live longer.
While things like good healthcare and a great diet have helped the Japanese to increase their lifespan, studies suggest they may have a genetic advantage.
Two specific genes – DNA 5178 and the ND2-237 Met genotype – play a potential role in extending life by preventing the onset of some diseases. DNA 5178 helps people resist adult-onset diseases like type 2 diabetes, strokes and heart attacks. ND2-237Met genotype also helps with resistance to cerebrovascular and cardiovascular diseases.
Japanese people are more likely to have these genes, although it’s still something of a lucky draw. Some people will receive more ‘longevity’ genes than others.
Similar to the ideas of ‘hygge’ in Denmark or ‘joie de vivre’ in France, the Japanese live with ‘ikigai’. This ancient philosophy roughly translates as ‘your reason to live’ and encourages people to live with joy and purpose.
The ikigai way of life is especially popular in Okinawa, known as the ‘Land of Immortals’. They have one of the longest lifespans and the highest rates of centenarians in the world. Okinawans treasure community and forge close bonds with their neighbours.
They believe that having a purpose is essential for life fulfilment and that you can find joy and purpose in many aspects of your life such as helping others, eating well, and being surrounded by loving friends and family. They don’t even have a word for retirement and prefer to keep active well into later life, rather than ‘retire’ and stop all work completely.
Science has proven that they’re on to something. Studies show that having a purposeful life leads to a longer life expectancy through better sleep and lower rates of chronic illness. Research has also shown that retirement can lead to an earlier death, as you experience a sudden lack of purpose.
So if you’re looking for an extra few years of life, take a leaf out of the Okinawan’s book. Find your ‘ikigai’ and live with joy and purpose.
Do you practice any of these tips for a longer lifespan like the Japanese? What’s your secret to good health? Let us know in the comments below…