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Fabric of a Long Life : Centenarians on Okinawa Credit Healthy Diet, Youthful Outlook
By: Paul Wiseman, USA Today
January 8, 2002
OGIMI, Japan -- Juan
Ponce de Leon and James Hilton had it all wrong. The fountain of youth
isn't in Florida, where 16th-century Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon went
searching for it. And Shangri-la isn't stuck way up in the Himalayas,
where "Lost Horizon" author Hilton placed his fictional
paradise, whose inhabitants never aged.
The nearest thing to
a real-life refuge from the ravages of old age and death is here on the
Japanese island of Okinawa in the East China Sea.
The Japanese live
longer than anyone else, and Okinawans live longer than anyone else in
Japan. The Japanese government says 457 Okinawans are at least 100 years
old -- 34.7 centenarians for every 100,000 islanders, highest ratio in the
world. The United States has about 10 centenarians for every 100,000
people. Life expectancy is 81.2 years on Okinawa, longest in the world.
New figures show that the average Okinawan woman lives to 86 and the
average man to 78.
Okinawans don't just
live longer. They live better. According to recent studies, the elderly
here appear to have far lower rates of dementia than their U.S.
counterparts and suffer less than half the risk for hip fractures. Some
Okinawan centenarians even claim they are still having sex. Researchers
aren't so sure about that. But Okinawan elders clearly do things other old
folks can't. Martial artist Seikichi Uehara was 96 when he defeated a
thirtysomething ex-boxing champion in a nationally televised match two
years ago, later explaining that his opponent "had not yet matured
enough to beat me." Nabi Kinjo became a local legend when she hunted
down a poisonous snake and killed it with a fly swatter. She was 105.
The rest of the world
is at last beginning to learn about this phenomenon. "The Okinawa
Program" -- based on 25 years of research -- is a best seller and has
been featured on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
The good news: The
key to Okinawa's astounding record -- good eating -- can be copied in the
United States. "The foods are also in the States if people consume
them in the right balance," says Craig Willcox, a medical
anthropologist at the Okinawa Prefectural University College of Nursing.
He is co-author of "The Okinawa Program" along with his twin
brother, Bradley, of the Harvard Medical School, and longevity expert
Okinawa has been known for people who live long and well. On the outskirts
of Ogimi, carved into a stone marker facing the sea, is an old Okinawan
saying: "At 70 you are still a child, at 80 a young man or woman. And
if at 90 someone from Heaven invites you over, tell him: 'Just go away,
and come back when I am 100.' "
Even for Okinawa,
this fishing and farming village is unique. Six of Ogimi's 3,500 residents
are 100 years old or older -- a rate equal to 171 centenarians per
100,000. And local officials think the figure would be higher if it
included natives who have left the village.
Okushima, 100, has been known to outdrink the young journalists who come
to interview her about the village's health secrets. She recently left an
inebriated TV film crew sleeping in her living room. Okushima believes the
secret to her longevity is awamori, the local rice wine she seasons with
mugwort and drinks every night at bedtime. "It helps my sleep,"
she says. "I sleep well after I drink."
Meeting at an Ogimi
restaurant, she hands over bottles of her homemade brew to visitors.
"When I was young -- 50 or 60 -- I would drink a full glass,"
she says. "Sometimes I'd drink with friends and couldn't find my way
home." These days, she has teacup-full or two. Okushima's awamori may
be a powerful elixir, but scientists say the key to the health of Okinawan
elders is more conventional: They eat remarkably healthy food. The
traditional Okinawan diet is heavy on grains, fish and vegetables, and
light on meat, eggs and dairy food.
The Okinawans are
especially enthusiastic eaters of tofu. Ogimi villagers like to mix it
with seaweed in a concoction called "mooi tofu." Eating tofu and
other soy products works wonders because soybeans are loaded with
flavonoids -- nutrients known to fight breast and prostate cancer and
believed to combat heart disease.
consume lots of fish. Fish -- particularly cold-water varieties such as
tuna, mackerel and salmon -- contains high concentrations of Omega-3 fatty
acids, which reduce the risk of heart disease and breast cancer.
They steer clear of
artery-clogging meats and dairy products. Results are astounding: Compared
with the United States, death rates are 82 percent lower for coronary
heart disease, 86 percent lower for prostate cancer, 57 percent lower for
ovarian cancer and 82 percent lower for breast cancer.
put," write "Program" authors, "if Americans lived
more like the Okinawans, we would have to close down 80 percent of the
coronary care units and one-third of the cancer wards in the United
States, and a lot of nursing homes would be out of business."
younger Okinawans and those who have left the island largely have
abandoned the good habits.
Okinawans moved to Brazil and quickly adopted the eating regimen of their
new home, one heavy on red meat. Result: The life expectancy of the
Brazilian Okinawans is 17 years lower than Okinawa's 81 years, Suzuki
generation goes to the fast-food outlets that surround U.S. military
bases. The change has had devastating results: Okinawans younger than 50
have Japan's highest rates of obesity, heart disease and premature death.
At least some things
never change. Ushi Okushima's daughter Kikue is 74 and a social worker.
She says her 100-year-old mother still treats her the way she did nearly
seven decades ago.
my hairstyle," she sighs. "She still talks to me like I'm a
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