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Obituaries

Kamato Hongo, 116; Believed to Be World's Oldest Person

November 01, 2003|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Kamato Hongo, a Japanese woman believed to have been the oldest person in the world, died Friday of pneumonia on the southern island of Kyushu. She was 116.

Hongo had been admitted to a hospital in the city of Kagoshima, near her home, several weeks earlier.

Hongo was famous in her region for her unusual habit of sleeping 48 hours at a time and then staying awake for two days, a pattern that she began after she had hip surgery at the age of 110. Family members discovered that she was able to ingest food even in her sleep and fed her small meals around the clock to sustain her.

Her relatives never allowed Hongo's unusual sleeping pattern to be disturbed, even when it was inconvenient. She was asleep, for example, when the certificate arrived from the Guinness Book of World Records in September 2002 officially recognizing her as the oldest person in the world. (She succeeded Maude Farris-Luse, an American who died in March 2002 at 115.)

Hongo also slept through her birthday two years ago, exhausted by festivities the day before as Japan celebrated its annual Respect for the Aged Day. The mayor of Kagoshima was among dozens of visitors who came to honor Hongo at her home on that day.

She was often asked about her diet, which consisted primarily of fish, rice, pork, green tea and rice wine, with occasional snacks of unrefined brown sugar. She attributed her health to her optimistic attitude and "not moping around." Even though she spent most of her time in bed in recent years, she exercised regularly by propping herself up to practice a traditional Japanese dance that focused on hand movements. Her great-granddaughter, Tomoko Kurauchi, 18, refreshed Hongo's bright pink nail polish every day.

Family members occasionally suggested possible reasons for their matriarch's good health.

"The key is not storing up stress," said Hongo's grandson, Tsuyoshi Kurauchi, in an interview with Associated Press last year when he was 45. "If you do that, you can eat or drink anything."

Gerontology researchers agree that low stress levels and good nutrition are leading factors in support of a long, healthy life.

"But, don't expect that eating fish every day will guarantee that you can imitate Kamato Hongo," said Dr. Stephen Coles, director of the Los Angeles Gerontology Research Group www.grg.org, an international organization based at UCLA that tracks people who are older than 100. He said that "90% of longevity is the result of genes."

With Hongo's death, Mitoyo Kawate, who is also Japanese, was thought to have become the oldest living person, Coles said. She was born May 5, 1889, and is 114.

Hongo was on Coles' list of super-centenarians, people 110 and over, from the time he started keeping track of them four years ago. There are now 41 names on that list.

Hongo's longevity is in keeping with Japan's reputation as the country with the longest life expectancy rate -- women are expected to live to be 85 and men to be 78, according to the latest Japanese government survey. By comparison, at birth, women in the U.S. are expected to live to 79 and men are expected to live to 74, according to 2002 figures published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Kyushu, where Hongo lived for nearly 40 years, was also the home of the oldest living man, Yukichi Chuganji, a retired silkworm farmer, until he died at 114 in September.

Coles said geographic location is not a major factor affecting the life span of the greatly older people he has studied. And, he added, they were not much concerned about their health.

"They eat what they want, do what they want, and never saw a doctor until they were in their 90s," Coles said.

Hongo was born on the small island of Tokunoshimi, off Kyushu, which was also the birthplace of Shigechiyo Izumi, who was 120 when he died in 1986 and was believed to be the oldest living person at the time.

Hongo married in 1914, cultivated sugarcane with her husband and raised three daughters and four sons with him before he died in 1964.

In recent years, Hongo lived with her daughter, Shizue Kurauchi, 79, one of her seven children. Hongo's large family included more than 140 children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.

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