Lonely deaths, Unattended death estimate tops 40,000 across Japan

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by News Desk

TOKYO (The Japan News/ANN) - More than 17,000 people who were living alone died unattended at home across 19 prefectures and Tokyo’s 23 wards in 2016, according to research by The Yomiuri Shimbun, a finding that suggests the national figure was greater than 40,000.

 In its research, The Yomiuri contacted all 47 prefectural police headquarters and the Medical Examiner’s Office of the Tokyo metropolitan government.

 Statistics on “unattended deaths” (see below) have previously only been provided by certain local governments or have been estimates by private research institutions. In terms of scale of data obtained from public entities, the research conducted by The Yomiuri Shimbun is apparently the first of its kind to be publicized.

 There is no legal definition of an unattended death, and the government does not conduct a nationwide survey regarding the matter. Partly based on the definition of the Medical Examiner’s Office, which has been surveying and analysing cases within Tokyo’s 23 wards for years, The Yomiuri Shimbun defines unattended deaths as people living alone who died at home, with police involved in their postmortems and other procedures, but excluding homicides and suicides. We asked the police headquarters of the nation’s 47 prefectures to provide data based on this definition.

 Police headquarters in 19 prefectures, including Kanagawa and Shizuoka, provided specific data. The prefectural police in Tottori, Hiroshima and Yamaguchi provided approximate numbers. The numbers for Tokyo’s 23 wards were obtained from the Medical Examiner’s Office. Differences in statistical methods meant The Yomiuri Shimbun was unable to obtain data from the police headquarters in the other prefectures and elsewhere. 

 Based on the figures obtained, there were 17,433 unattended deaths in 19 prefectures and Tokyo’s 23 wards last year. Over 70 percent (12,745) of the deaths were people aged 65 or older. Among all types of deaths across those areas, about 3.5 percent (about 1 in 30) were unattended. They were most common in Tokyo’s 23 wards, at 5.58 percent, and least common in Saga Prefecture, at 2.12 percent.

 The number of all types of deaths in the 19 prefectures and Tokyo’s 23 wards accounted for about 38 percent of the nation’s total. Extrapolating from this, there were an estimated 46,000 unattended deaths nationwide last year.

 The Yomiuri was able to obtain the numbers of unattended deaths in Tokyo’s 23 wards and Kanagawa, Shizuoka and Iwate prefectures since 2012. Based on those figures, unattended deaths in those areas in 2016 increased by 639, or about 8 percent, from 2012.

 Based on the data from the Medical Examiner’s Office, men accounted for 70 percent of the unattended deaths last year in Tokyo’s 23 wards. The most heavily represented age group for the men was 65-69, accounting for about 19 percent. The most heavily represented age group for women was 85 and over, at about 29 percent. 

 About half of the unattended deaths in Tokyo’s 23 wards were due to cardiovascular diseases, such as ischemic heart failure. Many were considered sudden deaths.

 Masashige Saito, an associate professor of Nihon Fukushi University’s faculty of social welfare and an expert regarding unattended deaths, said: “The revelation of the scale and trends based on public figures is significant. It is very likely that many of the people who died alone did not have anyone to help nearby, or did not obtain information about nursing care. It is necessary to grasp the actual situation nationwide and prepare countermeasures.”

■ Unattended death

  The term “unattended death” often refers to someone who died alone and unnoticed, but there is no concrete definition in Japan, and the factors taken into consideration — such as the period until the discovery of the body or whether suicides are included — vary by local governments. Some deaths are referred to as kodokushi (solitary deaths), but “solitary” carries strong subjectivity due to the feelings of the people who died. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry uses the term koritsushi (unattended death) because of cases of two or more people dying together, albeit in an otherwise isolated state.