Home |  Elder Rights |  Health |  Pension Watch |  Rural Aging |  Armed Conflict |  Aging Watch at the UN  


Mission  |  Contact Us  |  Internships  |    



Want to support Global Action on Aging?

Click below:


  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 Makoto Suzuki.

For centuries, 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.

Villager Ushi 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.

Okinawans also 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.

"Simply 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."

Unfortunately, younger Okinawans and those who have left the island largely have abandoned the good habits.

About 100,000 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 says.

The younger 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.

"She criticizes my hairstyle," she sighs. "She still talks to me like I'm a small kid."  

FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Action on Aging distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.