Japan has become the world’s test bed for the treatment of the elderly by virtue of being the world’s longest-lived country. Fifty years ago it is reported to have had just 327 centenarians. In 2017, the total reached 67,824, the largest per capita ratio in the world.
One fifth of Japanese citizens are 70 years of age or older. According to one estimate, the UK will not be in demographic terms where Japan is now until 2050. Thus the UK and other developed countries have much to learn from Japan.
But Japan knows that it cannot go it alone. Collaboration between Japan, the UK and other developed countries is essential to create a global healthcare ecosystem where research, innovation and information-sharing contribute towards better services, delivery and outcomes.
This is why I welcomed the £30 million partnership announced in January by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe and UK Prime Minister Theresa May to promote new technology and innovation to enable people in both countries to live longer, healthier lives.
I also welcome the fact that Japan’s vision for its super-ageing society is not restricted to the over 70s. Younger Japanese are becoming increasingly aware of the need to avoid the worst of an ageing society - as expressed in degenerative diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and arthritis.
They are asking: how can we age better and liver longer? In our turn, the UK should ask, why do Japanese people live longer and more healthily than we do? Data - medical records - may help to provide the answer.
Japan has one of the world’s most comprehensive public healthcare systems for its 127 million citizens. It has generated a mass of high quality, anonymised data from health, medical and nursing care and from health insurance claims and medical examinations. These data sets are hugely attractive to researchers because they can be used to assemble, analyse, interpret and feedback information about treatment. They are the basis of many cutting-edge studies throughout Japan.
The UK National Health Service (NHS), the world’s largest single-payer healthcare system, is also renowned for its high quality data collection. In future it will be extremely useful if our two countries can share common data sets to develop new products and contrast and compare the process of ageing.
The Japanese have been debating the concept of ‘elderly’. A proposal that it should be set at the age of 75 rather than 65 has provoked controversy, but the Japan Gerontological Society and Japan Geriatrics Society are reported to have said that this conclusion was based on science. They found that older people had become rejuvenated by an average of five to ten years, biologically and intellectually, compared with those of a decade or two ago.
The UK would benefit from a similar debate. We need to re-think retirement and encourage individuals to pursue new careers. We cannot afford to have people retiring at the age of 65. I have spoken to colleagues about introducing a new kind of national service for the over 65s. This could include, perhaps, paid work in the under-staffed National Health Service.
I hope that the new Anglo-Japanese alliance will generate debate in both countries about this and other aspects of ageing - enabling us to learn from each another. For example, Japanese healthcare is much less-digitised than that in Britain, but Japan has much to teach us about managing elderly populations and palliative care. They are better at caring for people at home or in community based centres. Far too many people in Britain spend the last days of their life in hospital.