The fountain of youth was once thought to be located in the New World, near Florida. However, the European explorers looked in the wrong direction—the secret to longevity can be found in Okinawa, Japan.
Okinawa is an island of nearly 1.4 million people, where heart diseases, strokes, and cancer are considered rare and where 740 of its citizens are over the age of 100. The citizens have lower levels of free radicals in their blood, low cholesterol levels, and high sex hormone levels. High levels of testosterone help to maintain muscle mass, and high levels of estrogen protect against osteoporosis and heart disease.
Not only that, but the citizens are aging more successfully than others around the world: Okinawan centenarians are energetic, mentally cognizant, and lean. Scientists have been fascinated by the impressive life expectancy of Okinawans since the 1970s, and several in-depth studies have revealed certain factors that contribute to the Okinawan history of longevity.
According to the Okinawa Centenarian Study, the longevity of Okinawans is 67% attributable to lifestyle and 33% to genetics. Genetic polymorphisms—the presence of more than one gene for an attribute—have lowered risk for inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. At the same time, when Okinawans move away to new environments, their life expectancies shorten. This is likely due to new habits learned from the new environment, demonstrating that lifestyle contributes to the long life expectancy.
Lifestyle is an influential factor—the pace of life in Okinawa is much slower, many citizens belong to a mutual support network that provides social help throughout life, and Okinawans maintain a healthy diet and physical regime. The support system that Okinawans belong to (called a moai) lends financial and emotional stability in times of need, and reassurance that there is always someone to lean on.
Spirituality encourages everyone in the community to have a sense of purpose, including the elders. Living life with a purpose maintains a healthy outlook on life, explaining the reduced dementia rate among the Okinawans.
Stress levels are also significantly lower among the people—not because stress doesn’t exist, but because the Okinawans understand how to handle it. The island has been invaded by foreign powers since the 1600s, 20% of it is taken over by the military, and it is considered to be the poorest part of Japan. Yet, despite these stressful factors, the centenarians have resilient personalities that do not allow stress to burden them and change their outlook on life.
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The Okinawan diet also greatly impacts health. One important Confucian adage that Okinawans adhere to is “Hara Hachi bu”, which translates to “eat until your stomach is 80% full.” This prevents over-indulgence. The Okinawan diet is even 20% lower in calories than the average Japanese diet. Additionally, Okinawans generally eat very little meat or dairy products; and Okinawan daily diet includes an average of seven servings of vegetables and fruits, seven servings of grain, and two servings of soy.
A plant-based diet, including purple sweet potatoes and fermented soy, is rich in antioxidants and low in calories. Living on an island also allows easy access to seafood, which is eaten moderately and is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids. Low intake of fat, sugar, and alcohol reduces the likelihood of cell damage, and (consequently) of heart disease and strokes.
In addition to nutrition, even the centenarians stay fit. The average body mass index for an Okinawan range from 18 to 22, which is considered as lean. Walking, traditional dance, and karate are hobbies that double as exercise. Gardening is another option that also encourages sunlight exposure, ensuring optimal vitamin D levels year-round.
Vitamin D maintains healthy bones, and it’s no surprise that Okinawans experience fewer hip fractures than Americans do. There is also little furniture in their homes; Okinawans tend to sit on tamari mats on the floor. Getting up and down off the floor promotes balance and increases lower body strength, making it less likely for Okinawans to experience injuries from falls.
Clearly, the balance in social, mental, and physical health contributes to Okinawa’s population of centenarians. Living to 100 may not be everybody’s goal in life. However, we should all consider incorporating a few Okinawan lifestyle habits into our routines, simply to promote health.