Do the Japanese have a patent on longevity?


Medicine from the Far East has many followers today. Almost everyone today knows what alternative medicine, acupuncture or chi life energy are. Most people, however, only associate them with China. In a way this is justified, as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) originated in the Middle Kingdom, but its manifestations can be found throughout the East Asian region, including Japan, a country renowned for its health and longevity. So have the Japanese discovered the patent for living long and healthy lives?

Japan, or "the land of the old

Today, life expectancy in Japan is the highest in the world and is (according to 2017 data) 81.1 years for men and 87.3 years for women. The demographics are alarming: they show that in 2019, people over 64 years of age represented 28.4% of the Japanese population, while children under 15 years of age represented only 12.1%. But the problem of an ageing population is common to all highly developed countries, of which Japan is undoubtedly one. Today, however, we are going to look at just one piece of this puzzle and consider why the Japanese live so long.

According to scientists, this is due to several factors. The first and most important is diet. Rich in seafood, vegetables (the Japanese get up to 30% of their daily calorie requirements from them) and rice, it is quite balanced. In addition, many people in Japan follow the famous Hara hachi bu principle, which loosely translated means "80% full belly". Asians eat several meals a day, but in smaller portions, and the different dishes are served on several small plates. This prolongs the eating time and gives the stomach time to send signals to the brain that it is full. Many Japanese people finish their meals at the first sign of satiety, without overeating, which accelerates cell oxidation and the ageing of the body.

The aces in terms of long, healthy life (manifested, among other things, by a lower incidence of senile dementia) are the inhabitants of the island of Okinawa, which has the highest number of centenarians per square metre in the world. Why there in particular? A favourable microclimate, a good diet (in Okinawa the diet is even more restrictive than in other parts of Japan, among other things because it drastically reduces salt consumption and amounts to about 1800-1900 kcal per day) and a culture of leisure (understood as ikigai: the happiness of being constantly busy) are, according to the inhabitants, the secret of their longevity. The fact that many people in Okinawa walk if they can - and physical activity is known to be very good for health - is not unimportant.

Japanese health

Another element of good health in Japan is the health care system. Even in the smallest towns there are well-stocked pharmacies to which people are "assigned" - this is where their medical records are kept and their health is monitored, so that they can react in good time to any deviation from the norm. In what way? For example, if a patient exceeds the permissible waist size, he or she is eligible for an appointment with a dietician and a psychologist. All of this is to enable the health system, through prevention, to avoid costly treatment for various chronic diseases such as heart disease. This is why Japan is considered a country of thin and healthy people.

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) also contributes to the good health of society. It probably arrived in the land of cherry blossoms between the 7th and 9th centuries, and has since taken root there. Today, the Japanese use the benefits of acupuncture in particular, as well as unique herbal blends that help solve many everyday problems. One of the reasons for the development of these is that it is estimated that the Japanese islands are 50% covered with endemic vegetation that is not found anywhere else (or in very few places) in the world.

Sources: Janina Rubach-Kuczewska: Życie po japońsku (Life the Japanese Way). Warsaw, Iskry, 1985. Pałasz-Rutkowska E., Starecka K., Japonia (Japan), Warsaw, TRIO Publishing, 2004. Simon Singh, Edzard E. Ernst, Trick or treatment?: Alternative medicine on trial, London: Bantam Press, 2008. Traditional Chinese Medicine: In Depth, NCCIH, 1 April 2009 [accessed 2017-09-21] [archived from address on 2015-02-03]. Population Estimates Monthly Report. Statistics Bureau. [accessed 2017-04-21].