Misao Okama celebrated her 117th birthday on March 5 surrounded by her family, which included great-grandchildren, and congratulatory government officials. This milestone made Okama the world’s oldest woman. She died on April 1.
Based on the most recent population forecast and data from the United Nations, it comes as little surprise that the world’s oldest woman came from Japan.
Japan, as is well known, ranks first in the world in having the oldest population: 44 percent of people there are 50 years old and over, while 25 percent of that cohort is over 65. (The cutoff age of 50 and older is being used for this article because it is often when people begin facing health and employment issues, such as trying to stay in the workforce or searching for a job after being laid off.)
An analysis of UN data from 2012 shows that Europe claims the remaining share of the 10-oldest countries by population, with Germany and Italy trailing Japan for second and third place, respectively. They are followed by, in order, Bulgaria, Finland, Croatia, Greece, Latvia, Slovenia and Malta. (The United States ranks 40th.)
As the world’s older population expands, it is becoming dominated more by women and therefore a major feminized concern. The booming older population is so prevalent that a working group on aging in the UN, set up in 2010, is focusing on improving the rights of older people.
The UN’s attention on aging has also been reinforced lately in the Human Rights Council, which in 2014 appointed Rosa Kornfeld-Matte, a Chilean, the first independent expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older people.
Japan stands out not only for its vast aging population but also because it is heavily female. One in 4 Japanese is older than 65, and half of the older women who live alone suffer in poverty because they were not encouraged to work when they were younger or were unable to find jobs, so their social pensions are inadequate. In fact, Okama talked about money concerns on her final birthday.
Inadequate social security benefits or pensions from employment for older women throughout the world is a growing problem for societies, since women who worked part time or in the informal sector when they were younger means they do not have access to full entitlements in their countries. In Mexico, for example, more than twice as many older men than women are most likely to receive a social pension or other type of old-age benefit.
Population experts note that the three-oldest countries by population — Japan, Germany and Italy — share such traits as good diet/nutrition and better control of infectious diseases and economic circumstances.
“The general trends are that great advances in health care and sanitation have led to people living longer lives, and also not having a war that has killed millions of people,” said Bethany Brown, the policy director for HelpAge USA, a nonprofit group that builds awareness of aging issues and advocates for older people’s needs globally. It is affiliated with HelpAge International, which operates from Britain.
Demographic experts suggest that the world as a whole has been aging rapidly over the last two decades: UN population projections for 1999 showed, for example, that more than half the global population was older than 26.4 years of age.
Asia ranks fourth among the oldest continents, with Japan and South Korea anomalous there. South Korea is fast aging because of fertility decline. Europe comes out on top in the world, with 36.5 percent of the population age 50 or over.
While many factors intersect in the aging of a nation, one important determinant is low fertility and high longevity. Japan, for example, has a fertility rate of 1.41 live births per woman of childbearing age, compared with 1.9 in the US, according to the World Bank. In fact, Japan’s population shrank by its largest amount on record in 2014, when about 1.001 million people were born and 1.269 million people died, leaving the country with 268,000 fewer people overall.
“We need a fertility rate of 2.08 to have a steady population, where births and deaths are matched,” said Michael Hurd, director of the RAND Center for the Study of Aging. This rate starkly contrasts with the world’s youngest countries, as reported in PassBlue, where fertility rates often average 5 or more children per woman, posing an entirely different set of challenges for countries. (Timor-Leste, in Asia, has the world’s largest population under 25 years old.)
One side-effect of the aging trend in Japan is a rise in immigrants, despite an avowed cultural resistance to outsiders. Many immigrants fill labor shortages that are a result of the maturing population. In 1990, the government began relaxing its immigration policies and started granting citizenship to Japanese emigrants up to the third generation. With the summer Olympics taking place in 2020 in Japan, the country will need more migrant labor to deal with the construction of sites and influx of visitors.
As of 2013, Japan had an estimated migrant stock of more than 2.4 million out of a total population of 127 million, including people from China, South Korea, Brazil, the Philippines and Thailand.
The US is not on the top-10 list and is not aging as rapidly as Italy and Germany, two major industrialized nations, because of its robust and solid immigration and steady birth rate, said Michael Hodin, the executive director of the Global Coalition on Aging, a group that works on public policies. Hodin noted that while immigration is not a long-term solution to a rapidly maturing population, immigration is shaping demographic structures. In the US, this has led to a steady birth rate.
Still, the US population of 76 million baby boomers is not far behind the oldest countries in Europe, thanks to overall improvements in health, specifically the decline in the number of smokers, a phenomenon that began in the mid-1980s.
“That has led to continued improvements in the number of men who have reached age 65, and we are seeing a catch-up in male and female survival,” Hodin said.
His recent analysis of the Health and Retirement Study conducted annually by the University of Michigan and sponsored by the National Institute on Aging revealed that “There are some disturbing trends in the younger population,” including more people who are 51 to 56 years old rating their health as fair or poor. Health problems like diabetes and obesity are most likely rising because of sedentary lifestyles and poor eating habits.
Experts say that the countries on the top-10 list will probably keep their place and will continue to be led by pockets in Asia and many parts of Europe. The aging trend will also extend to certain developing countries, like China and Turkey, as these nations generate better standards of living.
What’s critical is that the population of older people is not only growing in rich countries but also in poor countries, Brown of HelpAge USA said. A growing older population in developed countries creates formidable new challenges for these governments, like building appropriate infrastructure and transportation and health care systems that can handle the population’s needs.
By 2050, the world will have almost 400 million people who are 80 years or older, making it the first time the majority of middle-aged adults had living parents, according to the World Health Organization,
Societies will need to consider addressing larger issues, such as greater acceptance of older people. An open-ended working group tasked by the UN General Assembly is studying gaps on the rights and protection of older people in existing international frameworks on human rights and identify ways, perhaps through a treaty or other legal measures, to ensuring these rights.
Jane Barratt, the secretary general of the International Federation on Ageing, a network of nonprofit groups, noted that the UN task force should also look at employment and financial protection issues.
“We know that the rights of older people are not protected globally,” she said. “There are no international laws that focus on the lives of older people” and that “discrimination is at the heart of any convention.”
Amy Wu, a native New Yorker, was a professional journalist for 18 years, including six years in Hong Kong. She then taught journalism from 2011-2013 at Hong Kong’s Shue Yan University, where she focused on social media and mobile journalism. Since 2013, she has been a research assistant at the Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, while pursuing a Ph.D. in journalism and writing for the South China Morning Post and The Huffington Post. She has an undergraduate degree in history from New York University and a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. She speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese.