En español l Takami Kuroiwa looks forward to weekends — not so he can relax with a little golf or TV, but to put in 12-hour days on the family farm. His regular job as a tourism manager provides a comfortable living, but raising his own fruit and vegetables is part of a lifelong routine.
At 66, Kuroiwa has already come out of retirement once and expects to work well into his later years.
"It's part of the lifestyle here. You work in an office and then you retire to the farm. It's just the next stage in life," Kuroiwa says. As it turns out, it's a very long life.
A healthy diet, regular physical activity, extended work years and aggressive government intervention have helped the Nagano region produce the longest life expectancy in Japan, which in turn is the longest in the world. That marks a remarkable turnaround for an area that, as recently as the early 1980s, had the highest rate of strokes in Japan.
Women in Nagano prefecture, an area slightly smaller than Connecticut, can expect to live an average of 87.2 years, while men can look forward to living 80.9 years, according to the latest data from Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. (In comparison, life expectancy in Connecticut averages 78.6 years for men and 82.9 for women. Hawaii has the highest life expectancy in the U.S., at 78 for men and 84.7 for women.)
The lifestyle in Nagano, home of the 1998 Winter Olympics, has also produced some of the lowest per capita medical costs in Japan. That saves consumers and taxpayers millions of dollars a year.
Officials now are hoping to export the Nagano experience to the rest of the country, and perhaps even farther.
"Nagano is unique in many ways, but there are lessons you can apply anywhere. Improve your diet, stay active, continue to work as you get older. The key is not just to live longer, but to stay healthy longer," says Takuji Shirasawa, M.D., who teaches at the Department of Aging Control Medicine at Juntendo University in Tokyo.
Keys to a long life
Japan is one of the most rapidly aging societies in the world. A quarter of the population is age 65 or older. In Tokyo alone, some 3.1 million residents will be 65 or older by 2025, according to the health ministry.
Keeping those people healthy and productive is key to controlling costs for Japan's national health care system and helping offset a declining birth rate.
At first glance, Nagano would seem an unlikely setting for a long and healthy life.
Tucked high in the Japanese Alps, the area experiences long and harsh winters. Arable land is limited. Surrounded by mountains, Nagano is one of the few regions of Japan without immediate access to the fresh fish and seafood that makes up much of the national diet.
Even as Japan's economy boomed and longevity rates climbed through the postwar era, life expectancy in Nagano lagged. Men in particular suffered from high rates of stroke, heart attack and cerebral aneurysm.
Noriko Sonohara, head of the nonprofit Nagano Dietary Association, says much of the blame fell on a beloved, if unlikely, staple of the Nagano diet: pickled vegetables.
Housewives in Nagano for generations preserved all manner of homegrown produce to make up for the lack of fresh vegetables during long snowy winters, Sonohara explains. And while every village had a secret recipe for the dish, called tsukemono, all included one ingredient: copious amounts of salt. One survey found that Nagano residents on average were consuming 15.1 grams of salt per day — that's nearly three times the daily maximum in U.S. dietary guidelines. "In wintertime, people would sit around and talk and eat tsukemono all day," Sonohara says. "The turning point was 1981, when Nagano became number one in strokes. We decided, 'OK, we have to do something about this.' "
Next page: A focus on diet. »