Aside from an exemplary low-fat diet and regular exercise, Eriko Maeda has one other important factor on her side in the longevity stakes: her nationality.
Now living to an average of 86.4, Japanese women say longevity down to a fishy diet, exercise and sleep. And sake.
Eriko Maeda could be forgiven for succumbing to occasional thoughts about her own mortality. But even as she prepares to turn 70, she has every reason to expect she’ll be around for at least another two decades.
Aside from an exemplary low-fat diet and regular exercise, she has one other important factor on her side in the longevity stakes: her nationality.
Japanese women have enjoyed the longest life expectancy in the world for a quarter of a century, according to government figures. In 2009, they could expect to live, on average, a record 86.4 years - up almost five months from the previous year. Women in Hong Kong and France are the next longest-lived.
Japanese men, meanwhile, added almost four months to their life expectancy, which increased to 79 and a half years, although they fell from fourth to fifth in the rankings behind men from Qatar, Hong Kong, Iceland and Switzerland.
Experts attribute Japan’s extraordinary longevity statistics to a traditional diet of fish, rice and simmered vegetables, easy access to healthcare and a comparatively high standard of living in old age.
If Maeda is typical, then Japanese women will continue to outlive the rest of us. “I never eat meat and avoid fried food ... with the occasional exception,” she says as she nods, a little guiltily, at her lunch of rice and a pair of tempura prawns in the elderly shopping and entertainment neighbourhood of Sugamo, in Tokyo. “I eat lots of oily fish, like mackerel and sardines, I’ve never smoked and I hardly drink,” she adds.
Diet aside, Maeda, who lives with her son and his family, attributes her impeccable health, and the prospect of easily outliving her male peers, to a lifestyle that would shame people 30 years her junior. “I get up at 4.30am, do the washing and the rest of the housework,” she says.
“I make a Japanese-style dinner for me and usually something western for my son’s family, and I’m in bed well before 9pm.” In contrast, Sachiko Yasuhara is almost blase about her diet and confesses to being a regular sake drinker. Yet at 81, she is the picture of health. “I eat just about anything, but I draw the line at western food,” she says, adding that regular exercise comes in the form of outings with friends in Sugamo.
According to the health ministry, the upward trend in life expectancy is largely down to improvements in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, cardiac disorders and strokes, Japan’s three biggest killers.
Takao Suzuki, general director of the National Institute of Geriatrics and Gerontology in Nagoya, believes Japan’s almost perfect literacy rate is also a factor. “Older people are able to consume a huge amount of health and lifestyle advice in the media,” he says.
The health of Japan’s seniors is not without risks. If left unaddressed, the greying of the population combined with the low birth rate will lead to a pension crisis, ballooning healthcare costs and a labour shortage that could endanger Japan’s economic status. “I can see why people like me might be a problem in the future,” Ms. Yasuhara says.