Much of the developed world is staring at an ageing population problem that, within a generation or two, could have devastating consequences. Even in the near-term, it will present governments with a range of complex, intractable challenges.

Higher quality food, the eradication of several significant diseases, better healthcare and improved treatments for otherwise life-limiting diseases like cancer are just a few of the factors behind increased life expectancy rates. And while that is clearly something to be celebrated, like so many things in life, it is not without consequences.

But there may be help at hand in the form of a plant which is believed to have been eaten by Japan’s ancient warrior class, the Samurai.

Modern-day Japan is the world’s third-largest economy. Yet many economists predict a 25% decrease in the country’s GDP over the coming 40 years. This somewhat precipitous drop, should it happen, will be the result of population changes; 27% of Japanese people are aged 65+. The country also has a dangerously low birth rate.

27% of Japan's population is aged 65 years old and over.
Image: World Bank

That low birth rate is storing up problems for the future. But it’s the age of the current population that poses a more immediate concern. With an average life expectancy of 85.7 years, Japanese workers can look forward to a long retirement, although more are choosing to work well beyond the point at which they can start collecting their pension.

From folklore to the research lab

However, ageing inevitably comes with deteriorating physical health, strength and resilience. From sight and hearing loss, to musculoskeletal ailments, diabetes and dementia, a long life brings with it a host of unwelcome issues. Many of which will require medical attention, surgical intervention and out-patient care.

Health-span and life-span are out of sync: This is where the Japanese Ashitaba plant could help.

This hardy perennial, which is scientifically known as keiskei koidzumi, grows to a height of around 120cm. A native of the Japanese Pacific region, Ashitaba has a slightly bitter taste and – legend has it – is an ideal anti-ageing food. Its name translates as tomorrow’s leaf. Now scientists have revealed there’s more to that belief than mere conjecture and folklore.

Researchers from the University of Graz in Austria have identified the anti-ageing properties of a natural compound called flavonoid 4,4′-dimethoxychalcone (DMC). The compound has been found to slow down the process of deterioration all human cells go through. It was also observed to extend the life expectancy of yeast, worms and flies.

Putting the brakes on ageing

In total, the Graz research team looked at 180 different compounds, analyzing their anti-ageing properties. DMC was found to be the strongest all-round performer having the potential to “reduce chronological age-related cell death” and promote “longevity across species”, according to the report’s authors.

DMC belongs to a family of compounds called flavonoids – the largest group of phytonutrients in the plant world. There are more than 6,000 different flavonoids and they have long been associated with the health benefits of fruit and vegetables. The Ashitaba plant is a rich source of DMC, and consequently goes beyond the usual health benefits of a diet high in fruit and vegetables. It works by prompting a process called autophagy – a natural detoxification at a cellular level.

It could be one of the reasons Japanese people continue working well into old age and outlive their contemporaries in other countries so comprehensively.

But Japan is far from the only country facing the socio-economic challenges posed by an ageing population. Italy, Portugal, Germany, Finland, Bulgaria and Greece all have populations where more than 20% of people are aged at least 65.

Many others are not far behind, which is even more reason that the search for the elixir of youth continues.