Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.
In July 2007 the Guinness Book of World Records listed a man and woman from Japan as the world's oldest persons. Yone Minagawa was 114 and her male counterpart was 111-year old Tomoji Tanabe. Unfortunately, Ms. Minagawa held that title for only a few weeks. She passed away in August.
The Japan Health Ministry reported — as they have done for 22 years — that women in that country again led the world in life expectancy. A girl born to Japanese parents in 2006 could expect to reach the age of 85.8 years. If she had a twin brother he would not be quite as lucky but would depart this earth 6.8 years earlier at the age of 79.
Life expectancy is only an average; record-holders like Yone and Tomoji pull it upward. They balance out their less fortunate countrymen and women who die at birth or in infancy. Japan does extremely well in that category, too. Only Iceland, Singapore and Sweden can match Japan's infant mortality rate and no country can beat it. Infant mortality in the United States is more than twice as high and our life expectancy is 5 years less than the Japanese.
The citizens of Japan live longer because of their lifestyle, not because of their genes. Native-born Americans of pure Japanese ancestry who follow the activity and dietary habits of their Caucasian neighbors have higher rates of heart disease, breast cancer and osteoporosis than their genetically identical relatives in Japan.
The Japanese who were born near the turn of the twentieth century went everywhere on foot in a very mountainous country for most of their lives. Their diet was a healthy one, consisting largely of vegetables, seafood and rice. If they went hungry much of the time during and after World War II it probably contributed to their longevity because of years of life-extending calorie restriction. Japan never had a robust beef industry — Kobe beef being an expensive and out-of-reach exception for the vast majority. The fact that almost all of them are lactose-intolerant made it pointless to develop a dairy industry. With few sources of saturated fat it's no surprise that they are less likely to die from stroke or coronary artery disease.
Those hypothetical twins who are now about one year old may not be around as long as statisticians expect them to be. Japanese children have fallen under the spell of Burger King and its counterparts, they devote hours to Nintendo and television and they are heavier than their parents and grandparents were as children. Having observed the trends in the United States and elsewhere, the Japanese government is taking steps to minimize the spread of obesity.
The Japanese share an Asian genetic trait that makes them susceptible to type 2 diabetes when their lifestyle shifts to one like ours. The predisposition to type 2 diabetes is widespread throughout all Asian population groups. Micronesians, Polynesians and Native Americans all have high death rates from that disease.
For all these reasons, life expectancy in Japan will not maintain its upward trajectory. Then again, neither will ours. American youngsters will be the first generation to have a lower life expectancy than their parents, all the more tragic because it is preventable.
Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.