Okinawans are the indigenous people of the Ryukyu Islands in Japan. Okinawa life expectancy is the longest on the planet and they have the highest known concentration of centenarians for any country. The average life expectancy for men is 78 years and women 86 years. They are physically active and mentally aware until the end of their life span. They suffer from few of the common illnesses that plague other populations, particularly westerners, like heart disease, cancer and dementia. It seems Okinawans hold the key to a long, healthy, happy life. Which I think most of us would agree, is what we all want. So how come most of us have never even heard of Okinawa and their secret to life? Whilst at the same time tribes in Outer Mongolia know and love Coca cola. Let’s see if we can unlock this secret and help more people live long, healthy, happy lives.
Let’s Look At The Evidence
Often the problem with research based on age related data is sourcing reliable, verifiable facts because quite a few of us can be a bit sparing with the truth when it comes to confessing our age!
However in Japan all births, marriages and deaths are recorded in a “koseki” which is a family register that has been in existence since the 1870’s. This is coupled with the fact that there is a regular census taken every 5 years. So it’s fair to say the Okinawans are as old as they say they are!
Past research studies have shown that on average about one third of a human lifespan may be heritable – from the genetic makeup of the individual. An interesting study was carried out which concentrated on the Okinawan centenarians as a study model which revealed that Okinawan centenarians have HLA (human leukocyte antigen) genetic polymorphisms that place them at lower risk for inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. It also revealed a familial connection in longevity as siblings in a family enjoyed longevity together compared to other chorts in the study. This is all well and good but we can’t replicate the genes of the Okinawans that easily. So what factors are responsible for the other two thirds of their amazingly long lives – can we replicate that? Lets take a look..
The Okinawan Diet and Health
Older Okinawans have very low risk levels of hormone related cancers like breast, prostate, ovarian and colon cancer. When compared with North Americans they actually have 80% less breast and prostate cancers and less than half ovarian and colon cancers.
These long living Japanese phenomenons also have 20% fewer hip fractures than even their mainland Japanese counterparts who themselves have 40% fewer fractures than Americans. Their rate of bone loss in old age appears to be slower than their western counterparts.
Tests conducted on the elderly Okinawans also revealed they had young, clean arteries, low cholesterol, and low homocysteine levels when compared to Westerners. These factors help reduce their risk for coronary heart disease by up to 80% and keep stroke levels low.
Not only are they physically superior to the rest of us as they enter old age but mentally they have the edge too! There are much lower rates of dementia in Okinawans than in westerners of similar age groups.
- The Okinawans have a phrase that they will often say just before they tuck into a hearty home made meal “hara hachi bu” that means “stop eating when you are 80% full”. It is embedded in their culture not to overeat. They work at having a calorie restricted diet in fact it’s 2% lower in calories than an average Japanese diet.
- They feast on an antioxidant rich diet consisting mainly of green/orange/yellow (GOY) vegetables, fruits, roots and tubers rich in vitamin C, A and flavonoid poly-phenolic compounds like Beta-Carotenes, Luteins, Xanthins and minerals like Calcium, Iron, Potassium and Zinc.
- They have a very low fat and sugar intake eating practically no dairy, eggs or meat apart from on special occasions when they may venture into eating pork. But even then they cook the pork so all the fat is removed in the cooking process.
- Tofu, the high protein alternative to meat, is very popular – in fact they eat more of it than anywhere else on earth!
- An indigenous food – the “Imo” or local sweet potato, which can be purple or yellow in colour is a staple in their diet. It is high in flavonoids, Vitamin C, Fibre, Caretonoids, slow burning Carbs and contain “sporamin” which have anti aging properties.
- Another indigenous favourite is the Bitter cucumbers or “Goya” which have been know to lower blood sugar in diabetics.
- Seaweeds – Konbu and Wakame – which are rich in Caretonoids, Folate, Magensium, Iron, Calcium and Iodine and numerous anti-oxidants.
- Turmeric is popular and taken in food and tea which is well know for its anticancer, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory properties
- Shitake mushrooms are a great addition to their dishes which contain more than 100 different compounds with immune protecting properties
These sprightly centenarians also like to keep active. They typically have a kitchen garden which they tend for several hours on a daily basis. They also participate in group exercise activities such as karate and Tai Chi.
There is a strong sense of community amongst the Okinawans. They are there to support and strengthen each other. Elders are respected by the younger generation and are included in activities, often the young and old will come together to share their skills and achieve a task. The elderly Okinawans feel valued and included in their society.
Post War Diet
After the second world war the US took over administration of the island from the war until 1972. There was a cultural shift and western influence took hold in Japan and Okinawa and food habits gradually began to change. Okinawans doubled their rice consumption and bread crept in – a new addition to their daily diet. Milk, meat, eggs and poultry consumption increased more than seven fold all hitherto absent in their diet. The first fast food outlet was opened in Okinawa in 1963, 7 years before Tokyo. As a result of this dietary change cancers such as lung, breast and colon almost doubled in their population amongst the younger people who adopted this lifestyle. The younger generation are also now the fattest in Japan and prone to a range of obesity-related illnesses that could kill them in middle age. Almost 30 per cent of the younger generation of Okinawan men die before reaching 65, and nearly half of men in their forties are obese. On the other hand the elders whose eating habits where embedded and remained unchanged by the Western influence continue to remain the longest living people on the planet. The dramatic effect of this dietary change on Okinawans health speaks for itself. A local doctor said..
“When people reach 99 we have celebrations and take commemorative photographs. Often we can see the 99-year-old next to his grandchildren who will be overweight. The great-grandchildren will be healthy. The son isn’t there because he is dead.”