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Japan is Planning for a Society in Which Living to Age 100 is the Norm

I recently completed an online course from Keio University in Japan about how Japan is (seriously) planning for a 100 Year Life Society. I was impressed. Not just political rhetoric--Japan is taking the challenges of an Aging Society very seriously and instituting measures to ensure that their super-aging society is as healthy and productive as possible. We can learn from them.

We often hear dire predictions about the aging of the future U.S. society, but currently persons age 65+ make up less than 16% of the U.S. population and by 2050 are projected to make up about 22% of the population. In Japan, the 65+ population already makes up nearly 29% of the population and is projected to constitute about 38% of the population in 2050.

Average at-birth life expectancy for U.S. citizens is currently about 79 years and about 85 years for the citizens of Japan. What is even more intriguing is that HALE (life expectancy free from serious disease and disability) is 68.5 in the U.S. compared to nearly 75 in Japan. Granted, there are probably some genetic characteristics that play a role in the differences, but there are also life-style behaviors that are transportable across race and cultures. Think of how wonderful it would be to add 7 years of healthy life!

I cannot provide all the take-away lessons from the course, but here are a few that surprised and impressed me:

1. My stereotypical thinking about how Japanese families take care of their elderly turned out to be wrong. Decades of declining birthrates have made it impossible for families to carry all that responsibility and government programs have had to be developed. Many of these programs, however, stress inter-generational interaction.

2. My stereotypical thinking about how the Japanese diet just “naturally” brings about good health turned out to be mostly wrong. Decades of exposure to cosmopolitan (unhealthy) fast food has created the need for deliberate choices. Governmental actions to educate people, aggressively label food products and promote healthy eating is an on-going public health priority.

3. My stereotypical thinking about communal tai-chi and other exercise programs turned out to be correct. Life-long exercise is encouraged to the point of being a national virtue.

4. Life-long learning and events for socialization are viewed as more than just nice amenities. They are public health initiatives. To this end, libraries are more than just book repositories. They serve as a principal venue for on-going education and even exercise programs.

5. Senior centers are declining in popularity and being superseded by gyms and exercise events.

The fairly recent and still evolving national plan for a 100 Year Life Society includes elements that are controversial without being punitive or condescending to older people. Chief among these are:

A policy for promoting life-long employment. This is viewed as being a way to help the economy, ease burdens on the pension system and enhance the social role of older citizens. (Yes, the notion that older people shouldn't retire is controversial).

A program of mandatory Long-Term-Care Insurance that workers must buy into starting at age 40.

An educational effort for encouraging older people to take responsibility for end-of-life planning including planning for passing assets and considering medical treatment options. (Our politicians are afraid to even mention death).

Wide promotion of the World Health Organization initiatives of Age-Friendly and Dementia-Friendly planning at the community level. (Yes, dementia is a big issue in Japan).

The course I took was free through Open University: Future learn. If it is still being offered you can take it yourself. If not, you might find another free online course you like through the Open University (a wonderful concept)

A description of the government Plan for 100 Life Society is attached.

100 year life society
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