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Nagano, Japan: A Solid Gold for Longevity

Updated on July 17, 2016
The Japanese see the butterfly as the presence of joy and longevity.
The Japanese see the butterfly as the presence of joy and longevity.

Author's note: A prefecture is a territory or singularly governed region. In Japan, Nagano City is the capital of the Nagano Prefecture, the basis of this hub article.

History of Health Statistics in Nagano

In 2014, women of Nagano can expect to live 87.2 years, and men 80.9 years, but it wasn't always this way.

In 1981, Nagano had the highest rate of strokes per capita. Being inland, Nagano didn't have readily available seafood, and the residents of the area favored their furuzuke, highly salted, pickled vegetables. People were consuming over 15 grams of salt daily (three times the U.S.recommended daily allowance). Men suffered from not only strokes, but also from heart attacks and cerebral aneurysms.

Comparing Life Expectancy of the 5 Top U.S. Cities

Male Life Expectancy (yrs)
Female Life Expectancy (yrs)
San Diego, CA
1.338 m
Honolulu, HI
1.360 m
Anaheim, CA
Bridgeport, CT
Seattle, WA
Note: The U.S. ranks 42:223 in longevity for countries, as of 2014.

What changed in 35 years, and how did the people of Nagano do it?

The City of Nagano

A markerNagano, Japan -
Nagano, Japan
get directions

Nagano City, former site of the Winter Olympics and capital of the Nagano Prefecture, lies in a mountain valley away from the sea.

The dark pink area is Nagano City; that plus the pastel-colored sections  make up the Nagano Prefecture.
The dark pink area is Nagano City; that plus the pastel-colored sections make up the Nagano Prefecture. | Source

Author's Note: The Nagano Prefecture covers an area slightly smaller than Connecticut in the U.S. and includes at least two other major cities and numerous villages.

The First Goal: Reduced Consumption of Miso Soup
The First Goal: Reduced Consumption of Miso Soup | Source

Raising Community Awareness

The first goal was to drastically reduce the use of traditional soup, which was made from dashi, a stock, and miso, a soybean paste made by fermenting soy beans for about ten months with salt and koji, fermented rice or barley.

Health conditions slowly began to improve as The Dietary Association of Nagano trained and organized volunteers to conduct nutritional seminars at supermarkets, shopping malls, and community centers. Clinics were also established.

A typical demonstration at a supermarket might include preparing a dish of sesame pork with shitake mushrooms and pumpkin slices, only with the salt content reduced to less than a gram. Education also includes awareness of lower healthcare costs (as of this writing, U.S. healthcare expenses more than triple that of Nagano's).

A salad topped with sesame dressing.
A salad topped with sesame dressing.

The Local Vegetables of Nagano

While rice and livestock make up a little over a fourth of Nagano's agriculture, vegetable consumption is the highest among its residents for all of Japan. The area provides over a hundred varieties of fruits, vegetables, flowers, and mushrooms for the prefecture and the country. In fact, the Nagano Prefect has the highest count of farming households per district relative to the rest of Japan. Typical vegetable produce include cabbages, lettuce, celery, and broccoli.

Nagano's Walking Trails

Hundreds of walking trails have been created for residents to walk and remain active. Walking, while taking in some of Nagano's beautiful views, is the most cost effective, easiest exercise that anyone can do. Communities and neighborhoods organize group walks, which not only benefit the health of their constituency, but solidify social relationships as well.

A bridge on a walking trail in Kamikochi, a remote mountainous region in the Nagano Prefecture.
A bridge on a walking trail in Kamikochi, a remote mountainous region in the Nagano Prefecture. | Source

The Hot Springs of Nagano Prefecture

The Japanese refer to hot springs and bath spas as onsen.

The legends of onsen go back to nearly 3,000 years with people observing injured birds being healed and wounded samurai recovering quickly after being guided to the springs by gods. The hot springs were believed to cure as many as 40,000 different illnesses.

The high temperatures of the waters aid muscle relaxation, relieve stress, and strengthen organs through rich mineral properties.

People of Nagano cherish their many hot springs and routinely make them a part of their healthcare ritual.

Therapeutic Hot Springs--Not Just for People (English subtitles)

The Jigokudani Monkey Park is located within the Nagano Prefecture. Snow monkeys are indigenous to Nagano.

Retirement Postponement and Second Careers

The authorities of Nagano Prefect encourage their aging residents, who comprise roughly one-fourth of the population, to continue working passed the age of 65 and remain active. It is not uncommon to experience office work during the early years, then engaging in farm work after retirement from the white collar world.

The benefits of activity into the senior years are two-fold--not only are the people healthier, but healthcare costs diminish. The Japanese perspective of "serving the whole" helps make health awareness and practice a reality.

Routine Health Checkups

Finally, Nagano citizens are encourage to get regular health checkups. A local bank in Matsumoto, Nagano's second largest city, offers higher interest rates on savings for customers who evidence health checkups for three consecutive years. Perks, like a trip to Tokyo's Disneyland, are also offered by the bank as additional incentives.

Health fairs are even being hosted by at least one convenience store at various locations through the prefecture to accommodate those who shy away from healthcare clinics and institutions.

The Role of Volunteers

  • check blood pressure
  • answer healthcare questions
  • distribute information about public healthcare services

Currently, Nagano has 4,500 volunteers to work educational seminars and run health clinics to monitor patients' progresses and offer support for the two million people in the prefect's greater area.

A Final Checkup

In 35 years, the Nagano City and Prefecture have been able to improve healthcare conditions of their citizens by encouraging the reduction of salt intake through organized clinics, health fairs, and educational seminars at convenience stores.

In addition to dietary changes, a movement to reduce stress through exercise and use of hot springs or spas have become vogue in the Japanese mindset, which is always to do what benefits one's community as a whole.

Activity, characterized by late retirement, second careers, and volunteer work, has contributed to the longevity of Nagano's population. Local incentives, such as community support and business perks have further motivated the people.

These changes didn't happen overnight, but improvements were evident after the first year or so after the implementation of health workshops and clinics, as cases of strokes, heart attacks, and brain aneurysms became less prevalent.

Nagano is a model that addresses the concern of rising health care costs around the world. Education, dietary changes, exercise, and the spirit of cooperation can and do make a difference. ***

When Was Your Last Health Checkup?

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Credits and Resources

Spitzer, Kirk; "Secrets from the Longest-Living Place on Earth"; AARP Bulletin, Washington, D.C.; May 2014, Vol. 55, No. 4 ISSN 1044-1123 (Table Information) (Additional Table Information) (Agriculture of Nagano) (Hot Springs)


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    • Marie Flint profile image

      Marie Flint 3 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      Kelly, what an inspirational comment! Thank you.

      I wish more people in the U.S. could take the initiative of the Japanese with respect to their health.


    • EZ Swim Fitness profile image

      Kelly Kline Burnett 3 years ago from Southern Wisconsin

      Outstanding! This addresses so many of my mantras - salt makes fat around the heart, exercise is essential and so on. Very well done. For our world to be healthier, we need to mimic the anti-aging methods of Japan.

      I have started taking Omega and it has helped me tremendously. My Mother was plagued by RA and I wonder if she had Omega supplements if it could have helped her.

      We have made a number of advancements but there is so much more we can do. What an important case study to show that we can change.

      This longevity is important but the quality of life is key.

      Off to my hot tub! :) Now I have justification! Thank you!

    • Marie Flint profile image

      Marie Flint 3 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      Good point, Writer Fox.

      When I did temporary work one summer for Oldsmobile in the Safety Department, salt tablets were on hand for the workers to keep them from becoming dehydrated. Now that I look back on it in light of the salt-reduction diet of the Nagano people, the corporation was unknowingly reducing the life expectancy of their workers.

      People seem to become addicted to the taste of salt. I remember having one guest with whom my husband and I were sharing a meal in our home, and the man asked, "Where's the salt?" I replied there was salt on the chips. Apparently, though, he wanted a salt shaker.

      I think the reason more isn't published about the subject of a low-salt diet is because snack manufacturers want to keep their customers buying salted snacks. As Cecile pointed out above, the mayor of New York is having a difficult time just banning 16-oz sodas. The same problem holds true for salt. There is resistance to change, especially when money is involved.

      I do hope we Americans catch onto the truth. Adequate amounts of sodium can be had in the plants we eat; celery, for example, has a goodly amount of sodium. ***

    • Writer Fox profile image

      Writer Fox 3 years ago from the wadi near the little river

      This is an interesting subject, especially about the relationship between salt intake and longevity. It's fascinating that the community of Nagano went on a campaign of salt reduction. Looks like it was very effective. I wonder why more isn't published about this. Enjoyed and voted up!

    • Marie Flint profile image

      Marie Flint 3 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      Thank you for the read, comment, and vote, Jodah. Same here--I'd much prefer a longer, quality life over "burning the candle at both ends" lifestyle any day. Being ill is misery.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Hi Marie, great hub and very interesting. I think I'll move to Negano or at least reduce my salt intake. I have greatly increased my vegetable intake in recent years and exercise regularly. I'd rather have a quality healthy life in my later years than to live forever in pain or illness. Voted up.

    • Marie Flint profile image

      Marie Flint 3 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      Thank you for the read and comment, Ms. Dora. I agree that we can learn from the people of Nagano, especially from their cooperative spirit. It can be hard to make changes without support, but when you see everyone is making an effort, you are more likely to succeed. Kudos to these people!

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 3 years ago from The Caribbean

      Wow! We can all learn from the people of Negano. They are the proof that we can make positive changes in our health and in our lives by following basic health laws. Thank you Marie, for sharing their incredible story!

    • Marie Flint profile image

      Marie Flint 3 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      Hello, Eric; it's nice to hear from you. Longevity in itself really isn't what it's all about, is it? Rather, it's the quality of life one leads. What good is it to live twenty years in a state of miserable health? (No, thank you.)

      It's good to know you have good eating habits and exercise. You are a catalyst for those around you, whether you realize it or not. Keep up the good work!

      As for the Legos, well, hopefully your son will lose interest in using the doorways for his projects!

      I think the climate in San Diego supports longevity--easier on the body, you know.

      I like your use of "Naganoese." I had thought about using "Naganoite--Naganoian?" I couldn't decide, so I just used "of Nagano" pretty much throughout.

      Thank you so much for your read and comment.


    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 3 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Not really sold on the idea of longevity. But I eat like a Naganoese and exercise like them also and I live in San Diego. And I am healthy and over fifty so my poor kids can bet on 90's for me.

      On the other hand if my son keeps putting Legos in doorways at night I may die tomorrow ;-)

    • Marie Flint profile image

      Marie Flint 3 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      Thank you so much, Alison and Cecile, for reading and commenting. A special thanks to Cecile for the vote.

      I'm sure the miso soup, Alison, is still consumed by the people of Nagano, but much less frequently. It is true that pleasant thought and gratitude do much to preserve health--it's not just food. Having beautiful things around us to look at certainly uplift the spirit and that upliftment is reflected in our physical bodies.

      I hope Mayor Bloomberg succeeds, too, Cecile! The main difference between New Yorkers and the people of Nagano is their perspectives on life. The Japanese accommodate and support one another; whereas, we Westerners seem bent on competing with one another. Hopefully, we will learn something from Nagano's successful changes.

    • cecileportilla profile image

      Cecile Portilla 3 years ago from West Orange, New Jersey

      Great hub Marie. Many people are not aware of the relationship between proper diet, exercise and illnesses. What happened in Nagano is a reflection of what can happen when people open their minds and allow themselves to be reeducated. I wish Mayor Bloomberg had similar success in his fight to ban sodas over 16 oz in New York. Voted up!!

    • alison monroe profile image

      Alison Monroe 3 years ago

      This Hub is beautiful. Even the miso soup that is blamed for shortening lifespans looks pretty.

      I'm sure that if people look around themselves for beautiful things, they will live better and maybe longer.

    • Marie Flint profile image

      Marie Flint 3 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      I seem to enjoy the subject of longevity. AARP Magazine continues to provide interesting articles that inspire me to write.

      Most of the information on the internet about Nagano, Japan, seems to be centered around tourism, so I found myself checking and rechecking sources.

      I hope the hub encourages readers to take a closer look at their lifestyles and make any changes they need to make under the guidance of their physician.

      Life can be good well into later years. And, as they say, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."