Oct. 5 (Bloomberg) -- Already a decade older than most people can expect to live, 86-year-old Tokyo widow Toshiko Doi plays team sports and exercises for three hours a day.
While the physical activity, including a 3-kilometer (1.9-mile) predawn walk each day, helps her fitness, the people she interacts with may be more important for her health. Seniors engaged in sporting and cultural pursuits have stronger community ties that forge healthier, more independent lives, researchers at the Nihon Fukushi University found.
Saddled with record public debt, Japan is promoting social interaction to curb the cost of caring for the 32 percent its people older than 60 -- the highest proportion globally. By 2050, one in five people worldwide will be over 60, from one in nine now, according to the United Nations. Japan’s approach may help other countries also facing rising numbers of elderly.
“It enables them to participate quite actively in community life,” said Babatunde Osotimehin, secretary general of the UN’s Population Fund, which is leading UN efforts on aging. People with strong social networks “will probably not fall ill as frequently,” he said in an interview in Tokyo, where the UN released a report on aging this week.
Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare released policies on health and aging that focus on strengthening seniors’ community involvement in July, a shift from previous approaches that centered only on individual behavior.
Finding cost-effective ways to promote healthy aging will be critical for countries trying to reconcile rising welfare costs and a shrinking tax base. By 2050, 42 percent of Japan’s population will be at least 60 years old, according to Global AgeWatch. Fifteen percent will be over 80, like Doi.
28 Million Followers
At 6 a.m. each morning, she and hundreds of her neighbors gather in Myoshoji Park for a half hour of stretching and breathing exercises, joining 28 million Japanese following instructions broadcast nationally on the radio. Afterwards, Doi’s group stays on in the park to socialize over a game of petanque, or French bowls.
“I’m having so much fun every day,” Doi said. “I live alone, but I’m not lonely at all. Everybody looks after me. They phone to see how I am if I don’t show up.”
Social cohesion may be helping Japan achieve an average life expectancy of 84 years, the world’s longest, said Ichiro Kawachi, a social epidemiologist at Harvard University in Boston.
The health ministry is tapping the benefits of community supports as a pillar of its 10-year plan for healthy aging. People with limited social networks are prone to isolation and exclusion, and tend to suffer more from disease, a 2009 UN Development Programme report found.
Isolation triggers multiple responses in the body that include heightened activation of the brain’s stress systems, increased blood pressure, reduced inflammatory control and immunity, and perturbed sleep, scientists reported in the Annals of the New York Academy of Science last year.
Already, babies born in Japan today can expect to live 75 years free from disability, according to HelpAge International. That’s the highest healthy life expectancy globally.
The health ministry wants at least two out of three Japanese citizens to feel connected with their community by 2022, compared with 46 percent reporting strong community ties in 2007, it said in July. It also aims to have at least 80 percent of seniors participating in community activities within a decade. Four years ago, the participation rate was 64 percent for men and 55 percent for women.
In Tokyo’s Suginami ward, where Doi lives, authorities award points in the form of stickers to seniors who participate in government-approved activities from picking up litter, to attending health and sporting events, to cultural activities. Each point has a value of 50 yen (64 cents) and can be exchanged for grocery coupons. The Suginami local government has allocated 80 million yen for the project this year, according to its website.
“People who are disadvantaged socially and economically have more health problems,” the health ministry in Tokyo said in July.
Each year since 1988, the ministry has hosted the “Nenrinpic” carnival in which seniors compete at a national level in sports such as tennis, petanque and croquet. Doi’s petanque team has represented Tokyo five times, been a finalist three times and won the championship in 1999, she said.
Health clubs are benefiting from a growing enthusiasm for exercise among seniors. Koshidaka Holdings Co., which operates 1,200 women-only fitness centers in Japan, says 50- and 60-year-olds make up more than 60 percent of its 500,000 members.
“The core customers have never really exercised in their adult life before, so they feel the benefits from an easy, 30-minutes of weight training,” Hiroshi Koshidaka, the company’s president, said in an interview. “Many come three times a week, feel improvement, make friends, encourage others to join, and stop people from quitting.”
About 3 percent of members of Koshidaka’s Curves chain quit annually -- about half the industry drop-out rate, he said.
Koshidaka rose 2.4 percent to 2,265 yen as of the close of the Jasdaq Securities Exchange today, compared with a 0.6 percent gain in the Jasdaq Stock Index. The shares have advanced 15 percent this year and has increased an average of 88 percent the past four years.
Social interaction can relieve stress on the elderly and enables them to share information, according to Katsunori Kondo, head of the Center for Wellbeing and Society at Nihon Fukushi University in Aichi, central Japan. Kondo began studying aging societies in 1999 and he and his colleagues now follow 111,000 seniors across Japan.
They have found people who are more trusting of other citizens were less likely to develop disabilities and lived longer, he said. Also people who shunned others, avoided shopping, sports and activities such as cooking and gardening, were more prone to dementia and depression, said Kondo, who advises the World Health Organization on ways to assess age-friendly cities.
The so-called social capital derived from trusting, caring social networks also yields resilience, as evidenced last year when an earthquake-triggered tsunami killed almost 20,000 Japanese, Harvard’s Kawachi said.
“What impressed the world was that there was no looting and people queued to get food and supplies in tough times,” Kawachi said. “The longevity of Japanese can’t be explained by just lifestyle, food and nutrition, genetics and a universal health system. Japan’s strong culture, solidarity and trust play a role in their wellbeing, especially among elderly people.”
For Tokyo widow Doi, belonging to a team also adds a sense of purpose.
“I have to practice every day or risk my friends giving up on me,” she said. “I enjoy the chats, too. Everybody is cheerful and says whatever they want to say, and that’s refreshing.”
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