Ways to extend ‘healthy life expectancy’

The Yomiuri Shimbun As the nation’s population continues to age, awareness of health issues is important in order to extend “healthy life expectancy” — the period of life when people can live independently — and maintain a happy, active society. To stay healthy, more and more people are turning to health foods and dietary supplements while paying attention to lifestyle habits, from exercise to diet to sleep. We asked experts what can be done to extend healthy life expectancy.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Dec. 21, 2016)

Properly using ‘functional foods’

Ryuichi Morishita

Professor at Osaka University

The key to extending healthy life expectancy is paying attention to lifestyle, such as diet and exercise. However, even if one remains aware of the need to do this, it is hard to put the awareness into practice. Grappling with this issue becomes easier by creating the right opportunities.

When it comes to food, one way forward is through a system started in April 2015 dubbed “functional foods.”

Under the system, food manufacturers can label their products “functional” based on scientific research. The system is expected to improve dietary education. To maintain a balanced diet and stay healthy, it is important to know what ingredients are included in food and understand how they function in your body. The new system is a good opportunity to study this information.

Establishing the scientific basis of food functionality is the responsibility of the manufacturer, which submits the information to the Consumer Affairs Agency. The testing methods and production systems are made public, improving safety and transparency.

Another system of healthy food labeling is called “Foods for specified health uses,” also known as “tokuho.” Under this system, manufacturers must obtain government approval before claiming functionality.

Compared to tokuho, “functional foods” require much lower research costs and require little time to obtain government approval. More than 500 food products now use the system, 1½ years after it began. The number of products is still small, but functionality labels are now seen on such fresh products as mandarin oranges and bean sprouts.

A major share of functional food products come in the form of dietary supplements, which comprise nearly half of all such products. While there is no clear definition of “supplements,” the term refers to capsules or tablets of concentrated ingredients that are claimed to be good for a specific health purpose. Supplements are considered unnecessary if one obtains sufficient nutrition from diet alone.

It is important to understand the ingredients and functionality of supplements in order to determine if they are necessary.

For example, a woman, who felt better after taking iron supplements, recommended them to her husband. But it caused a problem with his liver function. While supplements helped the anemic woman, her husband had an excess of iron, leading to negative health effects. Different supplements may be necessary for different people.

Clinical test data are listed on supplement labels, allowing consumers to see what amount should be taken for how long before deciding to purchase the item.

The use of supplements should be accompanied by managing body weight and paying attention to diet as well as taking occasional walks and improving overall lifestyle habits.

However, supplements can only be used to maintain and promote health. To cure a disease, it is necessary to take medicine. If you believe you have a health problem, it is important to consult with a medical institution. Even if a supplement looks like medicine, it is important to realize it cannot be used in place of medicine.

This understanding is crucial in order to properly manage health and use functional foods, including supplements.

Graduate of Osaka University’s School of Medicine, specializing in gerontology. As a member of the Cabinet Office’s Council for Regulatory Reform, Morishita led the introduction of the functional foods labeling system. He is 54.

(This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Yuichi Morii.)

Lifelong dreams give you strength

Yuichiro Miura


The most important thing for extending healthy life expectancy is having a lifelong dream and the strong will to move toward that goal — no matter how old you are. It is also necessary to exercise your entire body and eat a balanced and nutritious diet. When I set the goal of climbing Mt. Everest at the age of 70, I became acutely aware that the biggest problem was eliminating metabolic syndrome and that maintaining daily health is so important.

When I was 53, in 1985, I had succeeded in skiing from the highest peaks of all seven continents. However, I subsequently did not have any goals and stopped doing my daily 10-kilometer run and weight training, living an intemperate life.

I am 164 centimeters tall, but my weight was 90 kilograms when I was around 63 and had my health checked at a hospital. I was about 10 kilograms heavier than when I was working out, my [systolic] blood pressure was nearly 190 and my blood sugar level showed that I was prediabetic. I clearly had metabolic syndrome, and the doctor told me I had only three years to live.

I thought if I only had three years to live, I should risk my life climbing Everest. As a trial run, I tried climbing the 530-meter Mt. Moiwa in Sapporo, but due to angina I became too exhausted on the climb to the top. I had been trying to take great care in maintaining a balanced diet of meat, fish, vegetables and seaweed, but I realized I was still eating too much.

I have raw eggs, yogurt and natto for breakfast. To have a body as strong as that of a Westerner, I have been taking vitamin supplements since I was in my 30s. I take them to support my diet based on my physical condition. To improve my endurance, I have used supplements for a long time to remove the toxins and active enzymes that build up in my body. Even mentally, I am energized when I think about how supplements are helping some part of my body.

I also practiced my own form of aggressive health management: attaching weights to my ankles for walking, and carrying a knapsack full of weights when on outings. Little by little, I added weights, and by the time I climbed Everest for the first time at the age of 70, I was carrying 10 kilograms of weights on my ankles and 30 kilograms of weights in my knapsack. I had a strong will to climb Everest no matter what, and with that training, the pain in my knees and back gradually disappeared as my leg muscles gained strength.

After that, I successfully climbed Everest twice — when I was 75 and 80. By the time I was 80, my body had slimmed to 80 kilograms. The important thing is to find a way of health management that works for you by obtaining basic knowledge about exercise, diet and dietary supplements. My current goal is to ski from the summit of the 8,201-meter Mt. Cho Oyu in the Himalayas in 2018. I want to ski with the view of Everest in sight.

Aomori-born explorer. Successfully climbed Mt. Everest for the third time at the age of 80 in 2013, becoming the oldest person to conquer the highest mountain on Earth. He is 84.

(This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Yuji Kimura.)

Preventing incapacitating frailty

Tetsuo Tsuji

Project professor of the Institute of Gerontology at the University of Tokyo

The aging of Japan’s population is happening at the fastest rate of any country in the world. As of 2015, 26.7 percent of Japanese were 65 years old or older, and one in four people was classified as elderly. Every year, government spending for medical and nursing care increases. It is feared that the working-age generations will be unable to support these costs after 2025 — when the Japanese baby boom generation (those born from 1947 to 1949) will be 75 or older.

How to respond to this problem is a major issue. The most important thing is for individuals to take care of their health and do their best to live independently without the need for nursing care, thus extending their healthy life expectancy.

There are two major paths that lead to the need for nursing care.

The first is lifestyle diseases. Stroke is one of the most typical manifestations of this kind of disease and can make it impossible to live independently.

The other is frailty, in which muscle strength and activity gradually decline to the point where people may require nursing care.

To prevent lifestyle diseases, it is absolutely vital to engage in exercise like walking, and to have a balanced diet with proper caloric intake. Measures are already being implemented to stop lifestyle diseases. One of them involves a system of special health checkups that I had a part in developing. For example, we find people who are at high risk of developing diabetes and offer them specific medical advice and encourage them to improve their lifestyles.

Preventing frailty will be extremely important in the future. The fundamentals of frailty prevention are:

— Eating vegetables and protein-rich foods like meat.

— Exercising.

— Remaining socially engaged and avoiding becoming a shut-in, a factor that is particularly important.

The Institute of Gerontology at the University of Tokyo in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, where I work, is engaged in a project to prevent frailty.

A main pillar of this effort is a “frailty check,” by using a “finger circle test” in which the thumbs and forefingers of both hands are placed around the thickest part of each calf. If there is any space between the circle and the calves, muscle mass is considered to have been depleted, which can lead to frailty. Then we examine eating habits, exercise, and social involvement to make people aware of their possible weak points. These frailty checks are conducted with the help of a citizens support group, which mainly comprises elderly people.

Throughout the country, other local governments are also working to prevent the elderly from needing nursing care, by doing such things as promoting social engagement and exercise classes. An increase in the popularity of frailty checks could improve the health of entire local areas. Both lifestyle diseases and frailty can be prevented by individual’s own efforts and behavior, leading to improved health.

Naturally, it is also essential to adjust our social environments to prevent these problems. Moreover, it is vitally important that each of us remains aware of our own health and social engagement. At the same time, we should think carefully about our health and take action based on what is best for us.

Graduate of the University of Tokyo Faculty of Law. Former administrative vice minister of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. He specializes in social security policy. Among books he has authored is “Nihon no Iryo Seido Kaikaku ga Mezasu Mono” (Goals of Japanese healthcare system reform). He is 69.

(This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Akihiko Kano.)

10-year gap between ‘healthy,’ ‘average’ life expectancy

As the population ages, the government is seeking to extend the “healthy life expectancy” during which people can stay healthy and live independently.

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the average life expectancy for men in 2013 was 80.21 years, while the healthy life expectancy was 71.19 years. The average life expectancy for women was 86.61, and the healthy life expectancy was 74.21 years. Nursing care and other help are usually required during the gap between the average life expectancy and healthy life expectancy — about 10 years for both men and women.

With the aim of reducing this gap, the ministry included the goal of extending the healthy life expectancy at a rate higher than that for the average life expectancy in the second term of the national “Health Japan 21” plans that were released in July 2012.

Under the Healthcare Policy approved by the Cabinet in July 2014, the government aims to extend the healthy life expectancy by more than one year by 2020. It intends to tie this to economic growth by creating industries that support a “long, healthy life.”


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