Want to live long? Laugh. Got nothing to laugh about? Laugh anyway. Force yourself. Seriously. Many factors go into longevity, some obvious, others mysterious. It makes sense, somehow, that a mirthful disposition would be conducive to long life, and so it is – people who laugh naturally and readily live, on average, seven years longer than those of sour mien. The surprise is that even forced laughter is life-promoting – not as much so a natural laughter, but by roughly two years over non-laughers.
Japan’s longevity is world-leading, men living on average 79 years, women 86. A closer look blunts the celebration that seems to call for, says Sapio (September): “Japan is an unhealthy longevity superpower.” Health ministry statistics illustrate the point. On average, they show, Japanese spend the last 10 years of their lives ill or incapacitated to the point of needing care.
The conventional wisdom on health and longevity is deceptively misleading, the magazine finds. Eat sensibly, exercise moderately, rest sufficiently – and live long. It’s still good advice, but far from the whole story. It fails to include what medical experts now consider the most important point of all – “connectedness.” Isolation is the biggest killer, the best promoter of illness.
Dr Yoshiki Ishikawa cites American research comparing the longevity of married people versus the single or divorced; people who socialize or engage in volunteer activities versus people who don’t. The difference is too marked to be mere chance: the death rate for “unconnected” men versus “connected” men is 2.3 times higher; 2.8 times higher for women.
Particularly striking in Japan are regional differences in longevity. Yamanashi and Shizuoka Prefectures top the list. Nature in both places is abundant and beautiful (they share Mount Fuji) – leading to much hiking, climbing and vegetable consumption. Shizuoka in particular boasts an old tradition of fostering the “connectedness” Ishikawa touts. The prefecture is rich in “cooperative associations,” membership dues financing group travel, group dinners and drinking and other forms of life-stretching, health-promoting conviviality. (Presumably the dining and drinking doesn’t veer into the excess that would render it self-defeating.)
Okinawa on the other hand, with nature, sunshine and conviviality to spare, somehow went astray. For years it was Japan’s longest-living prefecture. Women still do well, ranking 3rd nationwide, but men have fallen to 30th place. The Westernized diet gets the largest share of the blame, with the stress of hosting military installations likely a close second. Too much fast food, too little exercise. “I see this as where Japan as a whole is heading,” Dr. Kazuhiro Nagao tells Sapio.
Laugh. It’s good for you, as was shown above, and life is funny, if you look at it correctly. Liberals, it seems, live longer than conservatives. Does that make sense? Maybe it does: the conservative fight to preserve the past is doomed and conservatives must, deep down, know it. Fighting losing battles, however meritorious. takes its toll. So does poverty, and it’s no surprise to find the rich living longer than the poor – but interestingly enough, rich people with solid academic records live longer than rich people who were mediocre scholars. Intellectual capacity may be life-enhancing, but why should it should be life-prolonging? Maybe for that reason. On the other hand, the intellectually dull spare themselves a lot of the ulcerous anxiety that plagues the intellectually sharp.
Cancer, the scourge of the body as dementia is of the mind, varies remarkably by region. Akita, Niigata, Yamagata and Ishikawa Prefectures are notorious for stomach cancer. All are on the Sea of Japan, all are snowed in in winter, and all, consequently, have diets heavy on pickles and therefore salt.
Bowel cancer rages in Akita, Aomori, Kyoto and Wakayama Prefectures; lung cancer in Wakayama and Ishikawa Prefectures; liver cancer in Fukuoka, Osaka and Wakayama Prefectures. Tokyo is tops in breast cancer, against which female hormones are the best defense, leaving busy urban women who don’t give birth especially vulnerable, Sapio hears from its medical sources.
A final anomaly: cancer death rates tend to be lower in prefectures where cancer rates are highest. That’s where the best care is to be found.© Japan Today