On 9 January 2024, LongeviQuest representatives traveled to Isumi, Chiba Prefecture near the Pacific Coast of Japan to visit Hanako Ishii, age 110. Hanako-san lives in a local rehabilitation hospital, where she receives dedicated care from a medical staff treats her family. Her actual family lives nearby and she is constantly visited by family members, which she greatly enjoys.
Hanako-san has been completely blind for several years, but aside from that is remarkably free of serious ailments. Her hearing is nearly perfect. She has a healthy appetite, a consistent sleep schedule, appropriate muscle strength for her age, and her memory is excellent, especially of her childhood. LQ representatives had our temperature scanned and were required to sanitize our hands before entering the hospital. As a rehabilitation facility, the hospital is far less austere than an emergency facility, and it is clear the staff work hard to maximize the quality of their patients’ lives.
When Hanako-san was brought into the common room to meet with us, the first thing we noticed was her wide smile. According to her family and caregivers, Hanako-san is a very happy woman, and this was abundantly clear! She had a smile on her face during nearly our entire visit. According to the hospital staff, it is rare to see her without a smile. She gave us all warm greetings and seemed happy to meet new people.
Fortunately for us, Hanako-san shared some of the reasons why she is so happy. But first, she had only one minor complaint. “I’m fat!” she said to us, prompting laughter from her caregivers in the room. While some research has been conducted implying that elderly people may benefit from being slightly overweight, this was of no interest to Hanako-san. Even when expressing this concern, she was smiling, perhaps because she knew it would make her caregivers laugh.
Since her positive attitude was so apparent, we asked her right away what she enjoyed so much about life. She confirmed that she loves her present life with family and caregivers who treat her so well. It is clear this is a woman who is well-loved. Quickly, however, she shifted the focus to her memories. “Let me tell you about my mother,” she said, and for the rest of our visit, her mother was her favorite topic.
The warm smile still on her face, Hanako-san described memories of spending time with her mother as a young girl. She especially recalled the one-on-one times she had with her mother. She remembered her mother taking her shopping – both for groceries and for toys. She remembered going on long walks with her mother. At one point, she described a particular day in which her mother took her to get food and then to a park to have a “beautiful picnic.” She made a point of saying how her mother “never got angry.”
As Hanako-san was telling us these memories, those of us visiting from LQ all independently had the same thought: she was telling us about memories from over a century ago, as if they happened yesterday! Looking at her face, it was easy to see her smile as the same one that must have been on her face over 100 years ago as she experienced those memories for the first time. To those of us visiting, these memories seemed unambiguously happy to us, rather than the melancholy often associated with recalling memories of loved ones who have passed away. In other words, Hanako-san’s memories seemed to be totally sweet rather than bittersweet.
Whereas a smile may seem to be merely a reaction to someone’s mood, it can be a cause as well as an effect. Prior research has demonstrated that a smile can induce a chemical reaction in the brain, spurring the release of hormones including dopamine and serotonin which increase happiness and reduce stress. As Hanako-san shared these special memories with us, it is likely that she herself was made happier by recalling them. In this sense, her mother’s love remains an active feature of Hanako-san’s life, comforting her on a daily basis despite her mother having passed away some years ago.
These impacts are not fleeting; the effects of these positive memories are present even when they aren’t being actively recalled. Having so many positive memories – and recalling them regularly – has been shown to build long-term resilience in someone’s emotional wellbeing, leaving them better equipped to deal with the more difficult moments in life. Per a 2017 study, “savoring happy memories might be significant for one’s ability to cope with stress, potentially promoting better decision-making and wellbeing.” Therefore, it seems reasonable to conclude that Hanako-san’s mother’s love has empowered her throughout her entire life.
While her mother was Hanako-san’s favorite topic to discuss, she was not the only part of her life bringing her great happiness. She discussed her brother and her son, noting how neither of them ever got angry either. She expressed her love for her home and her daily life. She also admitted to enjoying eating, despite also mentioning again how she felt she was fat. It was clear that her caregiving team at the hospital treats her with the utmost respect, and Hanako-san appeared very comfortable. On this particular day, Hanako-san felt inspired to sing three songs, including a rendition of Kimigayo, the Japanese national anthem.
After an hour, it was time for those of us with LQ to return to Tokyo. Addressing the author of this article, who was visiting from the United States, Hanako-san said, “If you go back to America tonight, be careful, it will be dark outside when you return.” She then insisted on being taken to the elevator doors to bid us farewell, rather than returning to her room. It was difficult for all of us to willfully leave the presence of such a lovely person.
LongeviQuest researchers are often amazed by the ability of supercentenarians to persevere through tragedy. Virtually all supercentenarians have had experiences in their lives that are incredibly challenging, and their ability to cope healthily with stress is likely a major factor in their long lives. After this visit to Hanako Ishii, we are reminded that a person’s life does not have to be viewed through the lens of trauma. Hanako-san’s childhood started her life on the sweetest of terms, and it seems that for a century, there has been no factor in her life more important than love.
We deeply thank Hanako-san for allowing us to visit her and sharing her life story with us. We also thank her family as well as her caregiving team led by Dr. Tanaka.
- Overweight: A Protective Factor against Comorbidity in the Elderly by Giovanni Mario Pes; Giulia Licheri; Sara Soro; Nunzio Pio Longo; Roberta Salis; Giulia Tomassini; Caterina Niolu; Alessandra Errigo; and Maria Pina Dore
- A multi-lab test of the facial feedback hypothesis by the Many Smiles Collaboration (see link for authorship list)
- Reminiscing about positive memories buffers acute stress responses by Megan E. Speer and Mauricio R. Delgado
- The Role of Healthy Diet and Lifestyle in Centenarians by Eduardo J. Simoes and Luiz R. Ramos
- Coping Patterns in Advanced Old Age: Findings from the Fordham Centenarian Study by Kim Uittenhove; Daniela S Jopp; Charikleia Lampraki; Kathrin Boerner
NOTE: Research supplemented by Jimmy Lindberg, MSc, co-author.