When I think about growing old I picture assisted-living facilities and never-ending pill bottles. Then, there are health problems like heart disease, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, and cancer. It’s a scary prospect even for me—and I’m in my twenties!
What if growing old didn’t have to be so daunting? What if 100 years old could feel like 60?
It’s no secret that Japan has some of the healthiest people in the world. Remember Misao Okawa, from Osaka, who lived to be 117? Just last month, a 100-year-old Japanese woman became the first centenarian to finish a 1500-meter freestyle swim, completing the race in one hour and 16 minutes.
However, when it comes to life expectancy, Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture (district), ranks highest for the number of centenarians in the world. Once known as the “ Land of Happy Immortals,” the islands of Okinawa (or Ryukyu islands) are a melting pot of Asian cultures, from Mongolian and Malayan to northern Japanese. Following a brief “Golden Age” from 1400 to 1550 when the islands played a central role in maritime trade, Okinawa’s history is equally filled with centuries of poverty and devastation.
Today, Okinawa is home to beautiful beaches, crystal blue waters, and some of the healthiest habits in the world. While the first centenarians did not appear in Okinawa until the mid-1960s, there are currently about 40-50 per 100,000 population, of which 90 percent are women. (In the United States there are only half that amount.) Known for low rates of many age-related diseases like cancer, dementia, osteoporosis, and cardiovascular disease, the average Okinawan female lives 86 years and the average Okinawan male lives 78 years. However, like many post-industrial societies, where overeating, inactivity, and obesity are major public health challenges, the new generation of Okinawans must learn to incorporate the traditions of their ancestors if they hope to continue the centenarian legacy.
Here are nine key elements of the Okinawan lifestyle that have allowed the population to age so successfully:
Maintain a Low-Calorie, High-Nutrient Diet
In Okinawa, calorie control is a cultural habit called hara hachi bu, which means only eating until 80 percent full. Okinawans take in approximately 1,500 calories per day—that’s 40 percent less than the average North American. Their diet is high in antioxidants, flavonoids (plant compounds with antioxidant effects), and calcium (naturally occurring in their food and water), and limited in refined grains, meats, saturated fat, sugar, and full-fat dairy products.
Consume Fresh Fruits and Vegetables
The Okinawan diet is heavily plant-based, filled with homegrown fruits and vegetables. Fruit is typically eaten raw. Sweet potato, seaweed, papaya, watermelon, banana, pineapple, tangerine, shiitake mushroom, gobo (burdock root), and goya (bitter melon) are a few diet staples.
Choose Sweet Potatoes
Once considered a “ poor farmers food” (as the upper classes preferred rice), sweet potatoes are now ranked as the most nutritious of all vegetables by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and are abundant in the Okinawan diet.
High in nutrients and fiber, sweet potatoes are rich in vitamin A, C, and E, and are a good source of B vitamins, like thiamine, riboflavin, and B6. (One medium sweet potato will provide over 400 percent of the daily requirements of vitamin A.) The most commonly consumed variety of sweet potato in Okinawa, Satsuma Imo, has a low glycemic index score of 55 and thus a low impact on blood sugar levels.
Eat Fish First
The people of Okinawa eat oily fish—like salmon, tuna, or mackerel—two to three times per week, usually caught fresh. This low-fat, high-protein food is filled with omega-3 fatty acids that help maintain a healthy heart and aid in the functioning of the brain and nervous system.
Drink Moderately (and Skip Smoking)
Okinawan centenarians were found to have remarkably clean arteries and low cholesterol when compared to western nations, largely due to their moderate alcohol use and avoidance of smoking. Okinawan meals are usually served with freshly brewed jasmine tea (sanpin) and followed by a small amount of locally brewed millet brandy (awamori).
Stay Active (Soak up the D)
Okinawan centenarians have been consistently lean throughout their long lives, with an average body mass index ranging from 18 to 22. They are active walkers and gardeners, and they frequently practice dance, martial arts, and tai chi. They also take their meals on tatami mats on the floor, building lower back strength and increasing balance through the constant up and down movement.
Perhaps in part to their natural calcium intake and high levels of vitamin D (from outdoor activity), Okinawans have about 40 percent fewer hip fractures than Americans and lose bone density at a significantly slower rate than the mainland Japanese.
Plant an Herb Garden
Ishoku dogen is a universal concept in Okinawa, meaning “food and medicine from the same source.” There are 460 varieties of herbs grown in Okinawa, consumed for medicinal purposes as well as for flavor—the most frequently used are mugwort, ginger, hihatsu (pepper), tumeric, and fennel.
Say Yes to Soy
Okinawans eat around three ounces of soy per day, in the form of tofu or miso. Natural estrogen is frequently occurring in the Okinawan diet, with soy containing plant estrogens (phytoestrogens) called flavonoids. The tofu in Okinawa is low in water content and high in healthy fat and protein, increasing flavor and isoflavone content. Studies support the ability of soy isoflavones to slow bone loss and minimize hot flashes that occur with menopause.
Maintain a Healthy Psyche
Most Okinawans maintain a moai (a secure social network) through community centers and close-knit groups and can clearly articulate their _ikiga_i, or “reason for being”; they lead their lives with a definite sense of purpose and a deep understanding of self. Okinawans move at a low-stress, relaxed pace often referred to as “ Okinawa Time,” which typically means nothing starts on schedule. Their optimistic attitude, adaptability, practice of meditation, and strong spiritual beliefs help them cope with all of life’s crises.