Chatting Wiith Japan's Centenarians: What's the Key to Longevity?

Longevity story on ABCs NitelineABC News
Niteline story on Longevity

There is a saying in Japan: "Old people are everybody's treasures."

Take Masaaki Hatsumi, who is 77 years old and one of the world's grandmasters of Ninjutsu. Or Shino Mori, who at 105 is the oldest, and zaniest, television news reader in the world.

And let's not forget Shigeo Tokuda, who has starred in 350 pornographic films and, at the age of 74, continues to work regularly.

These are Japan's super-elderly. And their numbers are growing every day.

Tadashi Kozakai goes dancing twice a week. At the ripe age of 101 he has difficulty recalling some details. But he still has a spring in his step.

"I do daily exercises," Kozakai said. "I start with my lower back, then I bend and stretch my knees, then my shoulders and then I move my neck like this. Finally I do finger exercises for five minutes."

Kozakai was never a health nut. In fact he was a heavy smoker most of his life.

"I was about 90 years old when I gave up smoking," he said.

He attributes his incredible health to his dance classes, and the exercise and interaction they give him.

"When you get to my age you don't need relationships anymore like young people do, but having said that if you don't have any human contact, it would be a very lonely life," he said. "My dance classes comfort me."

When Japan began recording the number of centenarians in 1963, there were only 153. Now there are more than 36,000, and 86 percent of them are women. The life expectancy here is four years longer than America's.

So why are the Japanese living so long?

Professor Takako Sodei, who teaches gerontology at Ochanomizu University, says diet may be the No. 1 reason. "I think Japanese food is very good compared with United States. Yeah, because we don't eat much meat, and we don't eat much sugar."

On average, a Japanese person consumes 86.2 grams of fat a day. That's just over half of the 155.4 grams consumed by the average American.

A typical lunch-on-the-go in Japan includes raw fish on a bed of rice and miso soup. Researchers at Japan's National Cancer Centre have suggested that eating three or more bowls of Miso soup could cut women's risk of developing breast cancer.

Good Genes and Social Interaction

It's not just that people in Japan are living longer, they are livelier and more active in their old age.

Shitsui Hakoishi has been cutting hair for 75 years. At 92, she lives alone and runs her own business and still shaves her clients with an old-fashioned razor.

"When my hands start to shake I will have to retire," she said.

She insists that it's friends and family who keep her feeling young: "My customers are wonderful, they're like family. It's the people in this community who have kept me alive so long."

Still, it's fair to assume that good genes play a role too. During our visit, her older sister came by for a sleepover. She is 94.

Hakoishi does admit to one secret weapon: a lotion she makes herself from lavender and cucumber that she says keeps her skin soft and rosy.

Living Past 100

But there is one grave threat to the future supremacy of Japan's super-elderly … the ever-growing influence of the West.

"The problem is that among young people, their lifestyle and their eating habit is getting just like United States," Sodei said, "so in the future I am not sure that Japanese people can keep living longer and longer

But this generation isn't going down without a fight. Kozakai feels he may have another 10 years in him.

"In my area, I heard that the oldest person was 111. I feel I could live to that age," he said.

In Japan, the approach is quite simple.

"First, don't eat too much," said Sodei. "And just exercise, walk and walk."

Add a handful of tangos, a sprinkle of laughter and a generous dollop of love, and you might just have a recipe for a long, healthy life.