When I think about the possibility of living to age 100, it conjures images of sitting slumped in a nursing home, wearing too much make-up with Willard Scott hovering around to mark the occasion on The Today Show. I don't know about you, but I don't want to hang around too long in a withered, useless form or with a mind that exits before I do.
But would you want to live to age 100 or more if you were still active, healthy, and respected in your community?
There is a place where that happens far more frequently than in the United States or just about anywhere else for that matter — Okinawa. Okinawa is the largest collection of islands between mainland Japan and Taiwan. It's in our history books because U.S. forces invaded it in World War II, and it served as a base for bomber raids during the Vietnam War. But in spite of this turbulent history, Okinawans enjoy better health and longevity than other Japanese or Americans.
Centenarians number 34 per 100,000 people in Okinawa, many living quite actively. Compare that to 5-10 per 100,000 in the United States, where more are in poor health.
So what gives with the Okinawans? Why do they live so much longer than the rest of us? Doctors have been studying the people of Okinawa for 25 years, and the results were published in The Okinawa Program (Clarkson Potter).
It's pretty heavy reading, so I've summarized some of the secrets to a long and healthy life revealed in the book:
1. The Okinawan Diet. Okinawans eat an average of seven servings of fruit and vegetables a day (compared to 2-3 for Americans). They eat seven servings of grain and two servings of soy products. They eat Omega-3 rich fish several times a week and very few dairy products or meat (about an ounce of pork or poultry a day). This diet offers protection against most diseases related to premature aging, including heart disease, cancer and stroke. Their main method of cooking is low-temperature stir frying with canola oil, a very healthy oil which is low in saturated fat.
2. Calorie Restriction. Okinawans practice something they call “hara hachi bu” — which means “eat until you are eight parts full”. This self-imposed calorie restriction contributes not only to longevity but also to long-term health. Because less food is being metabolized for energy, there is a reduction in free radicals. Free radicals (molecules without an electron) do significant damage to cells. This damage causes many of the problems that occur with the aging process. Eat less, live longer. Cool.
3. Slower Pace. During the Okinawa study, centenarians were given a personality test on which they scored low in feelings of “time urgency” and “tension” and high in feelings of “self-confidence” during the prime of their lives. They live on “Okinawa time” — nothing starts on schedule. Moderation is a key cultural value, and they have optimistic attitudes, adaptability and an easy-going approach to life.
4. Respect. In America, youth is revered and aging is something to be fought and feared. In Okinawa, longevity is respected. The elders in Okinawa are celebrated and regarded with pride and respect. Families take care of aging relatives, and they are integrated into every aspect of family life.
5. Active Lifestyle. Exercise is integrated into the lives of Okinawan elders. They enjoy gardening, tai chi, traditional dance, and light martial arts. Elder day care is subsidized by the government, and many belong to community centers where they participate in a variety of active endeavors. They play the traditional Okinawan guitar, a banjo type instrument, and enjoy activities that have a spiritual component that connects the mind and body.
6. Spirituality. A deep spirituality is profoundly important to older Okinawans, especially the women who take an active role in worship and are the spiritual leaders of their society. In addition to Western medicine, traditional shamanistic healing practices are important to the elders. Health is the theme of most prayers.
7. Genetic Component. There is a genetic component to the longevity of Okinawan centenarians, as they do have long-lived brothers and sisters. However, it appears that it is their lifestyle that determines whether or not they will live to be 100. Most of us have genes that will enable us to live to 85 or 90, but our choices related to diet, pace of life, outlook, activity, self-esteem, and spirituality will determine whether we get there healthy and active. It appears to be mostly in our own control!