The secrets of longevity are found not in Shangri-la, but in the homes and hearts of the people of Okinawa.
Large numbers of people on Okinawa remain strong and active well into their eighties, nineties and even as centenarians. They have amazingly low occurrences of cancer, heart disease, and strokes. And, on Okinawa the proportion of life that is spent with chronic disease is also much less than the average American. This means that Okinawans, in addition to having a longer lifespan, have more healthy years free from medical problems during which they can live a full and active life.
Everyday Keiko gets up at 5 a.m. and prepares breakfast for her family. She spends most of the morning in a small field near their home tending the vegetables and fruit trees. Later, she will prepare the evening meal, and then spend the remainder of the day chatting with her friends. The fact that Keiko is over ninety years old is impressive, but there are exceptionally old people all over the world. What is significant is that Keiko’s husband and her large group of friends are all active, healthy and nearing the hundred mark.
Okinawa is famous as the birthplace of karate and infamous for the tragic battles that occurred during WWII. The people of Okinawa also have the longest life expectancy in the world. Their elixir for health and longevity is not a tablet or nutritional shake, but a result of their unique island lifestyle.
The phenomenon has been studied for nearly 30 years in the Okinawan Centenarian study, and its findings give an insight into why Okinawans seem to have a natural immunity to so many fatal diseases. The book The Okinawa Program, explains the research and provides advice on how it is possible to increase longevity. Following an appearance by the authors onThe Oprah Winfrey Show, The Okinawa Program became a bestseller in the United States. People all over the world began looking to Okinawa to show them the elixir of everlasting health.
Two main factors affect how long a person lives: their genetics and the environment they are in, commonly known as “nature and nurture.” It is possible that the people of Okinawa have an increased resistance to certain diseases due to their genetics, but Okinawans who move to other countries show a significant drop in longevity. It is clear that the environmental and lifestyle factors have a far greater role to play.
Unfortunately, the key to the long healthy life of Okinawans is not from one magical herb or vitamin. There are several lifestyle factors that improve a person’s chance of longevity. These include diet, exercise, and spirituality.
The traditional diet on Okinawa has a large amount of soy and vegetables and is low in meat and polyunsaturated fats. Vegetables and grains bulk out the diet and provide essential nutrients, while lower amounts of fats mean a reduced risk of blocked arteries. This may be the reason that, on average, Okinawans have 80 percent fewer heart attacks than Americans.
Okinawans also eat in moderation. There is even a phrase in the local language hara-hachi-bu that means eight-tenths full. By eating a little less, Okinawans reduce the chances of obesity and the vast numbers of illnesses associated with it.
Fruits and vegetables in the Okinawan diet provide a crucial supply of antioxidants. Antioxidant micronutrients are believed by many in the scientific community to offer protection against ongoing free radical activity in the body. Free radicals are thought to cause tissue damage and disease. They may result in the aging process and chronic age-related diseases including Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, cardiovascular disease and cataracts. .
Dr. Andrew Weil is the director of the program in Integrative medicine at the University of Arizona. He’s been on the cover ofTime, written several best-selling books, and was recently described as one of the twenty most influential people in America. He visited Okinawa to talk about aging and gave his opinion on the Okinawan diet:
“A Western diet has too much meat and animal products. In general, there are too few vegetables and fruits. It has the wrong kind of fats, especially too much refined vegetable oil, margarine and artificially hardened fats, and too few of the omega 3 fats from fish. An Okinawan diet, meanwhile, has a larger amount and a greater variety of vegetables: more legumes especially soy and other special Okinawan foods such as goya (bitter melon) and ucon (turmeric).”
While many Western pensioners don’t do anything more physical than change channels or fill in the crossword puzzles, Okinawans remain active. Walking, gardening, dance and martial arts all help maintain their cardiovascular systems, while keeping up muscle and bone strength. Gateball (a Japanese version of croquet) is very popular with older people in Okinawa. It is a social occasion and nearly all towns and villages on the islands have a small gateball ground.
Okinawa’s subtropical climate is another key factor for longevity, as the year-round warm weather means that at no time are older people house bound. In areas where there are heavy snowfalls, two main problems occur. If an older person continues to go outside there is a good chance they will slip and fall. Once injured, the road to recovery is particularly arduous for an older person. If the elderly stay inside during the winter months, the decrease in activity leads to them becoming physically weaker.
There are, of course, exceptionally fit old people in Okinawa who run marathons and go spear fishing for their dinner. However, it is simple everyday activities like walking to the shops or growing a few vegetables that keeps the majority of older Okinawans fit and healthy.
The slower pace of life in Okinawa, prayer, meditation and spiritual beliefs provide peace of mind. The link between spiritual or mental well-being and physical health is powerful. If a person is happy and content, then their immune system will be stronger and they are less likely to become sick. Conversely, a person who is depressed is more likely to become sick and less able to recover.
Unlike mainland Japan, where trains, buses and people are renowned for their punctuality, many of the island’s residents live on “Okinawa-time.” People are less concerned about arriving late and have a far more relaxed attitude toward timekeeping. Although this means everything from business meetings to wedding receptions run late, it is thought to produce far less stress.
On Okinawa, the valued role of older people in society gives the elderly greater purpose. It is important for them to maintain a social network that includes contact with younger people. In Europe and North America there is a trend toward housing old people only with other old people. This can lead to feelings of isolation and of having no value in the larger community. Older Okinawans remain busy with citizens groups, volunteering and preparations for many of the island’s festivals.
The community center of each town is more than just a meeting place. Funded by a small fee from each household, it hosts programs such as flower arranging, Okinawan dance, and calligraphy. Retirement is seen as a chance to take up new interests which, until then, elderly people were too busy to pursue. This burst in creativity means that the island’s photo competitions, pottery exhibitions, and art galleries are dominated by people born well over half a century ago.
Okinawa has been described as “The Real Shangri-La,” but all is not well in paradise. Okinawan lifestyles are changing, and the statistics for mortality have started to follow. A more Western diet combined with less physical activity, heavy smoking, and alcohol consumption has lead to a rise in the number of cases of heart disease, cancer and liver failure. These factors, coupled with a high suicide rate in young males, and an increasing number of traffic accidents, means that Okinawa’s number one ranking in the longevity charts is slipping.
Japan has embraced Western languages, music, movies, and even business practices. Internationalization has brought many advantages, but not all are beneficial. Maybe Okinawa doesn’t need to copy the Western world so much. Instead, other countries would benefit from following the examples of Okinawa’s oldest.
Words of Warning and Wisdom — an interview with Dr. Andrew Weil
Crusader for Health — an interview with Dr. Makoto Suzuk