In January, when researchers specializing in aging studies proposed that Japan redefine “elderly” as being aged 75 and older — instead of the current 65 — it raised more than a few eyebrows.

In a nation with a rapidly aging population, where the sustainability of the social security system is a top concern, the proposal set off fears in some circles that it could inspire the government to further push back the retirement age, forcing people to work beyond 65 and denying them pensions for another 10 years. It also left many young people worried that seniors will never leave the workforce, threatening their career prospects.

But Yasuyoshi Ouchi, who headed a committee of experts from the Japan Gerontological Society and the Japan Geriatrics Society that jointly came up with the proposal, said the conclusion was purely based on science. He said they found that older people in Japan are becoming “rejuvenated” by an average of five to 10 years, biologically and intellectually, compared with those a decade or two ago.

“We started our research with the question, ‘Why are over-65 people so robust and active these days?’ ” Ouchi, director at Toranomon Hospital in Tokyo who himself is 68, told a briefing at the Foreign Press Center in Tokyo last week. “Our proposal is not a political slogan. We tried to examine things from a purely scientific perspective.”

The current definition of elderly is based on the World Health Organization’s statement from 1956, which defines a society where people over 65 make up 7 percent or more of its population as “aging.” But the definition is out of sync with the situation today, as the health conditions of older people have significantly improved, Ouchi said.

He pointed to a number of studies that underscore the trend. The mortality rate and the rate of people seeking medical care for strokes have gone down since the mid-1990s, Ouchi said, quoting a large-scale study of residents that compared the rates in three age groups: 65 to 69, 70 to 74 and 75 to 79.

A separate study by the National Institute for Longevity Sciences covers a randomly selected group of 2,300 residents aged 40 to 79 in two communities in Aichi Prefecture. The study revealed that walking speed has improved in recent years, with those aged 75 to 79 in 2006 walking as fast as those aged 65 to 69 in 1997.

A variety of IQ tests given by the institute in 2000 and 2010 showed that the intellectual capacity of people in their 70s in 2010 was comparable to that of people in their 60s in 2000, Ouchi noted. In one test, participants were asked to recite a series of numbers in the order given or in reverse, while in another, they were shown an unfinished picture and asked to complete it.

He attributed the improvements in health conditions to better medical and health care, as well as improved nutrition and sanitation standards.

“It is becoming harder for Japanese people to come down with illnesses,” he said. “Intellectual tests also show that, while results vary from test to test, overall improvements have been seen.”

Given the “rejuvenation” of physical and intellectual abilities by five to 20 years, Ouchi said the researchers decided on pushing to redefine elderly.

He emphasized that he wants the group’s proposal to spark discussion, both at home and abroad, on giving elderly people the option to remain productive in society after 65, instead of requiring that they all retire.

But he also noted that the key is ensuring flexibility in the system so they can choose whether to keep on working.

“If the government tries to use our proposal to uniformly delay the age at which people can receive pensions to 75, we will oppose it,” Ouchi stressed. “There are a lot of frail seniors, and the safety net for them needs to be securely in place.

“But there are a lot of people who can work, in either paid or unpaid forms, in their old age. To create a system where such people are given the option to remain in the workforce is important, as they can help support the frail seniors and sustain our social security system. At the same time, we need to respect the views of people who don’t want to keep working, who want to chill out and enjoy themselves with hobbies.”

Will this “rejuvenation” trend continue in the future? Are we getting closer to achieving immortality? Ouchi is not optimistic.

“There is no guarantee that the trend will be here 50 to 70 years later,” he said. “Obesity among children is increasing, and young people are not exercising as much. If we don’t manage the health of young people now, the rejuvenation might end up being a fleeting phenomenon.”

A Matter of Health covers current research, technology or policy issues relating to health in Japan.

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