Dr. Makoto Suzuki is a cardiologist and geriatrician. In 1976, he moved from Tokyo to Okinawa and began work at the Ryukyu University Hospital. While working in the field of community medicine, he discovered that there were an unusually high number of very healthy old people living on Okinawa. He began the Okinawa Centenarian Study, which has documented the phenomenon for more than 30 years. The findings of his research became the basis of several books that became bestsellers in Japan and around the world.
How did you discover the phenomenon of Okinawan longevity?
“I had heard that there was a very healthy old lady living in Yomitan Village, so I, and two others from the hospital, went out to meet her. She was over 100 years old, but when we arrived she was outside cutting the grass with a sickle. I was amazed at how fit and strong she was. When we talked to her, she didn’t think she was unusual at all. In fact, she pointed out that another healthy centenarian lived directly opposite her. When we went back to Naha City, and checked through the medical records, we found that Okinawa had 32 people over 100 years old. Although six were bedridden, 26 of these centenarians were in excellent health.”
How many centenarians are there on Okinawa now?
“There are now around 700 centenarians in Okinawa, but most of them are bedridden. The number of super healthy very old people has not gone up much from the 26 we counted at the beginning of our study. This is an important point, as it means that although advances in medical technology can keep us alive, those extra years are not always active and productive. Our goal needs to be not just longevity but healthy longevity.”
What are the main factors that have kept elderly Okinawans in such good physical shape?
“I think there are four keys to their health: diet, exercise, self-care, and community care. The traditional Okinawan foods like goya champuru, sweet potatoes, fruits and vegetables have a lot of nutrients and are low in fat.
The elderly are also used to strenuous jobs such as cutting sugar cane and continue to be active gardening and walking. This regular exercise keeps their bodies strong and supple.
Self-care is about having an awareness of your own health and getting regular check-ups by the local doctor, while community care is important to extinguish mental troubles. On Okinawa, many elderly people attend mowai, or get-togethers where they cement friendships and can help each other with any problems they might have. Unfortunately the lifestyles of younger Okinawans do not match with these four keys to health, and their life expectancy is dropping.”
How do the lifestyles of young Okinawans differ from those of their parents or grandparents?
“Food and, more specifically, fat is the biggest issue. Younger people are more likely to choose a hamburger over goya champuru when eating in a restaurant. The number of obese males has dramatically increased, and this leads to many medical problems including heart attacks, strokes, and several hormone dependent cancers. Cars, rather than walking, are now the main form of transport, and computer-based jobs mean that, for many, the only muscles they are exercising are those in their fingers. In addition to this decline in physical fitness, young people are not taking as much care of their mental health. In big cities the community spirit that is so important for the elderly is not as strong. ”
Are you optimistic about the future?
“Okinawa’s ranking for male life expectancy has dropped from number one to number 26 in Japan, but the life expectancy of Okinawan females remains at the top. If the health of the island’s women also decreases, Okinawa will no longer be able to claim itself as the centre of longevity.
I am hopeful that the study’s results, especially the ideas of better self-awareness of health, will help many others. In September 2006, I hosted the Ningen Dock conference, during which 7,000 doctors, researchers and technicians from around the world discussed how to achieve successful longevity. Ningen Dock is the idea that just as ships regularly go into dock to be checked and serviced, so should people. Regular medical checks would allow doctors to catch problems before they become serious. This leads to a change in the emphasis of medical care from treatment to prevention. Hopefully, more people will then be able to live longer, healthier lives.”