Hiroko Akiyama, a gerontologist, is a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo—where she founded the Institute of Gerontology—and former vice president of the Scientific Council of Japan. In 2006 she received a doctorate in psychology from the University of Illinois, in the United States. Akiyama has conducted a number of international studies on longevity, including a long-running work tracking the aging patterns of approximately 6,000 elderly Japanese, research she began 35 years ago and which is still ongoing.

The professor, who is 81 years old and has enviable vitality, explained her conclusions and reflections at the Spain-Japan Longevity and Longevity Societies Summit organized in Salamanca by the International Center on Aging (CENIE), dependent on the General Foundation of the University. of Salamanca. Akiyama has made the most of her time in Spain and has not hesitated to join a dance with the prickly pear from the Salamanca university, when the opportunity has arisen. She receives La Vanguardia in the Auditorium of this reference center, between conferences.

Japan is the oldest country in the world and much has been said about the keys that explain it. What are they, for you, who know the subject in depth?

There are many factors that contribute to longevity in Japan. One of them is the universal public health system, citizens do not hesitate to go to the doctor if they need it and this is very important. Furthermore, as we know, the Japanese in general have a healthy lifestyle: healthy food, physical activity… Most have a private car, but they walk a lot on their daily trips. I lived in the United States for many years, there the difference between rich and poor is great; In Japan society is much more homogeneous, and this contributes to longevity, I think.

For years they have been studying how to face the economic and social challenges of such an aging population. What point are we at?

We are trying to redefine society with respect to the needs of aging. Right now in Japan women have a life expectancy of 87 years, and the fertility rate is only 1.34. Up to 29% of the Japanese population is over 65 years old. The total population began to decrease in 2010, and the active population as well. 15 years ago there were 9.1 people to care for an elderly person, by 2050 it is expected that there will be only 1.2. The national economy and social security are not sustainable at this rate. We have studied thousands of elderly Japanese, and we have seen what the trajectories and changes have been with increasing age.

And what have been the main conclusions?

Among men we have observed that 70% are suffering gradual deterioration and are ceasing to be independent, they need help. The graph is similar for women. In the decade of 70 years is when they lose more capabilities. This poses serious problems to Japanese society, we must redesign the entire social structure to adapt to aging societies, and we have made public policy recommendations based on our experiment (Kamakura Linving Lab) which required a lot of social and scientific innovation.

They have studied a lot the economic impact of demographic evolution… Is the pension system sustainable? What solutions do you envision?

We live longer and work longer, as an OECD report from 20 years ago said, but we also now live healthier. We have seen that walking speed has improved greatly from the 90s until now. Furthermore, the higher levels of training received also influence the state of health. In a survey of 5,000 Japanese men and women aged 50 to 64 (pre-seniors), we asked what they wanted to do after the age of 65. More than half wanted to work part-time, and expressed that they wanted to continue learning.

How do you explain that so many people over 65 want to stay active, after a life of effort? Out of economic necessity? Is it a cultural issue? It is fortunate and a right to be able to rest when retirement age arrives…

Most people this age in Japan want to continue working, but not necessarily full-time. I think most don’t do it for money, they want to stay connected to society and contribute to it. This is very important for them. Another reason, in urban areas, is that when they retire they lose their social network and connections, and they need to establish these networks in the area where they live. This can be built with the proposal we make.

Do you think Japanese people of this age who are still active work under fair conditions?

It depends on the cases. There is a small proportion of citizens who have to continue working out of obligation, to be able to eat and these may not have options. But normally, now, in Japan there are many options to carry out small part-time jobs in the community where each senior citizen lives. The second working life is very diverse in terms of health and time, some still have a lot of energy and hours available. People can choose the job they want to do, the time they work and their schedule, it is completely flexible.

Give examples of these small jobs they can do…

Workers are needed in many positions because there is less and less working population in Japan. Partial labor hands are needed in municipal services, in care, in schools, agricultural farms… You can choose. We have developed projections, in our Kamakura Living Lab experiment, for a second working life from the age of 65. We create job opportunities close to home, within your community, to develop your skills.

What consequences, social and individual, does this continuity of work have for people over 65?

The expansion of job opportunities for older people is essential to maintain the pension system and society. We must get older working people, so that they have the capacity to consume and demand does not drop. We evaluate the effects of working after 65 and observe various indicators of capabilities and interactions from 6, 12 or 18 months working after age 65. We have seen positive effects of returning to work. Working after retirement age is good for your health, and we have evidence of this. Plus, it’s also good for the welfare system. Those over 65 are a tremendous workforce, and in Japan we should allow you to continue working in a company at 75 or 80 if you still have the ability and that is what you want.

What evidence do you have of these supposedly positive health effects of continuing to work?

We have seen improvements in physical abilities, cognitive abilities and social interaction. Indicators such as blood pressure, bone density, the amount of body fat, and cognitive activity indicate that there is an improvement. With all this, we prepare public policy recommendations.

This is very difficult to understand from the Spanish perspective. There is a lot of job insecurity, age-related illnesses, fatigue and a great need for rest after a certain age…

It is very important that the decision to continue working after retiring is voluntary, not mandatory. Each person has different physical, family and social conditions. In our case, in Japan, it is voluntary and they can also choose the time they dedicate to working. If workers are forced, this is much more negative. If you are not in good health, you do not have to take any job that is physical. I am 81 years old, and I and many of my friends are partially working! The salary is lower than before, we have a pension, and it is positive.

Along with part-time job opportunities, they propose other aspects for the management of population aging…

Along with job opportunities we must offer long-term care insurance, senior services, the possibility of an assisted living community (a residential center for the elderly and for other people, not necessarily seniors, with assistance from doctors and nurses). In addition, also alternative transportation systems for the elderly in the community.