A recent survey of life expectancy around the world found that Japanese women no longer have the longest life span. That honor has been taken over by Hong Kong, where women live on average 86.7 years, according to 2011 data from Japan’s health and welfare ministry.
Japanese women are not so far behind, at 85.9 years, but losing the first-place position after holding it for the last 26 years is a bit of a climbdown.
The health and welfare ministry wanted to see where Japan stood after the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami. Official statistics show that of some 19,000 people who were killed or never found, more than 56 percent of those killed were aged 65 or older.
Of the missing, 75 percent were over 60. Japanese men’s life expectancy also dropped, to an average of 79.4 years, putting them in eighth place around the world. Those numbers are further evidence of how devastating the 3/11 disasters were to Japan.
The conclusion for the government is to ensure adequate preparation for future disasters. The elderly need special assistance during crises and the government should take their special needs into consideration.
However, the ministry’s report found that even with the exclusion of statistics related to the earthquake and tsunami, Hong Kong would still have overtaken Japan in longevity. That points to deeper factors.
Another reason for the drop in the life span is the rising number of suicides among older women. The number of men committing suicide fell slightly, but the total for both men and women remained over 30,000 for the 14th year in a row.
Suicide should be recognized as an ongoing problem that deserves much greater attention. Unlike earthquakes or tsunami, suicide can be prevented with the right intervention and treatment.
The report was not all bad news, though. According to the ministry, more than 45 percent of Japanese women and 20 percent of men will reach the age of 90.
That is a remarkable achievement, and it indicates that something must be going right. This slight downward trend may not be huge or lasting — as quality of life is certainly different from length of life — but the issues raised by the ministry’s report should be addressed.
Greater efforts toward disaster preparedness and the prevention of suicide among older people are urgent.