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'World's oldest person' dies at 116
( 2003-11-01 14:33) (USA Today)

Kamato Hongo, a Japanese woman believed to have been the world's oldest person, died Friday. She was 116.

116-year-old Kamato Hongo (L) at her home in Kagoshima, southern Japan. [File]
Kamato Hongo, shown here in September, was recognized in the Guinness Book of Records.

Born in 1887, Hongo was recognized as the world's oldest by the Guinness Book of Records after an American woman ! Maude Farris-Luse ! died in March at the age of 115.

Hongo's doctor, Kiyoshige Niina, said she died of pneumonia.

Charlotte Benkner of North Lima, Ohio, is the nation's oldest person, according to the Gerontology Research Group. The German-born woman will turn 114 on Nov. 16.

Hongo was famous throughout Japan for her habit of sleeping for two days and then staying awake for two days.

She had been hospitalized in Kagoshima, on the southern island of Kyushu on Oct. 8, after complaining of loss of appetite and fever. She appeared to have been recovering when her condition worsened Friday, Niina told a news conference.

Raised on a small, rural island on Japan's southern fringe, Hongo grew up tending cows and farming potatoes. The same island also produced the Japanese record-holder for longevity, a man, Shigechiyo Izumi, who died in 1986 at the age of 120.

Hongo symbolized the graying of Japan's society ! a trend that elicits both pride and concern.

Until last month, the world's oldest documented man was also Japanese ! 114-year-old Yukichi Chuganji. He died Sept. 29.

Japan's life expectancy ! 85.23 years for women and 78.32 for men in 2002 ! is the longest in the world. The average age of the population is also steadily rising.

Experts say the traditional Japanese diet ! which is low in fatty foods ! helps explain that longevity.

An annual government survey released this year in conjunction with Respect for the Aged Day, a national holiday, showed a record 24.3 million Japanese ! almost one in five ! have reached their 65th birthday.

At the same time, Japan marked a record low 1.32 births per woman last year, a figure that been falling for the last three decades and reflects changing values that have led more women to choose careers over children.

The changing demographic has raised fears the nation's pension and health care systems will be badly strained in the years ahead by a population consisting of fewer people of working and taxpaying age.

It was not immediately clear who the world's oldest person was following Hongo's death. Japan's Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry said Mitoyo Kawate of Hiroshima ! 114 years old ! became the oldest person in this country.

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