Healthy Hints From Okinawa for Good Living Past 100

By Debbe Geiger

July 23, 2001

"At 70 you are but a child, at 80 you are merely a youth, and at 90 if the ancestors invite you into heaven, ask them to wait until you are 100 and then you might consider it."


THAT ANCIENT PROVERB is found on a stone marker near the beach on Okinawa. It is on this chain of 161 islands, which stretch for 800 miles between the Japanese main islands and Taiwan, that researchers believe they may have found the fountain of youth.

If you don't believe it, consider this. It is common for Okinawan men and women to live past the age of 100. In fact, they have the highest number of centenarians in the world, with birth certificates to prove it. They also have the longest life expectancy, with most women passing on at age 86 and men at 78. It is uncommon for someone there to die from heart disease, stroke or cancer - they have the lowest incidence of these major killers in the world.

On Okinawa, the elderly are active and appear youthful beyond their years. There, you might see a 103-year-old ride his motorcycle to karate class, or a 101-year-old tending her garden before taking her vegetables to market.

What is the secret to their healthy, active, long-living lifestyle? Sure, they've got good genes, but that is only one-third of the answer. The real secret lies in their lifestyle, according to Dr. Bradley J. Willcox, a geriatrician at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Mass. As a researcher who has been studying the Okinawan people since 1994, Willcox says there are four lifestyle factors that explain their longevity: a low-calorie, plant-based diet, regular exercise, a strong spiritual commitment and a positive outlook on life.

Willcox's findings are detailed in a new book, "The Okinawa Program: How the World's Longest-Lived People Achieve Everlasting Health - And How You Can Too" (Clarkson-Potter, $24.95). He co-authored the book with his identical twin, D. Craig Willcox, a medical anthropologist and professor at Okinawa Prefectural University-College of Nursing, and Dr. Makoto Suzuki, chairman of the Department of Gerontology at Okinawa International University. Together, the three are co-principal investigators of the Okinawa Centenarian Study, which has been going on for the past 25 years.

"People always ask what is the most important thing," he says. "I say there is no one most important factor. It is balance between the main factors. We call them four legs of a chair. If you don't have those legs in balance, the chair will topple over."

A typical Okinawa diet includes seven servings of vegetables and fruit a day; seven servings of grains a day, two servings of soy products; fish several times a week and minimal dairy products and meat.

Exercise in Okinawa tends to be activities that connect the mind and body. Willcox says. "In Okinawa, they are not into a fitness regimen. They do hobbies. They do these things because this is what they've always done." Their daily activities include traditional dance, karate and a lot of walking. They also partake in strenuous gardening, which makes them feel one with nature.

Spirituality is a strong force in Okinawa. "They pray almost daily in their homes" where they have altars and make offerings to their ancestors. Women are powerful religious leaders.

Finally, he says, they lead relatively stress-free lives. "What you see in the elders is stress resistant personalities." It's not that they haven't been exposed to stress. In fact, since the 1600s, Okinawa has been invaded by one foreign power after another. Military bases take up about 20 percent of the island, and they are considered the poorest part of Japan. "People have stress but they've learned how to deal with it," he says.

Gerard Senese of Centereach was taught to follow the Okinawan way of life by his karate teacher, and believes it has helped him slow down his body's aging process. At 48, he says, "I'm 175 [pounds] and have a 32-inch waist. I'm the same as when I was in college as a lacrosse player."

As the owner of Ryu Shu Kan Long Island Family Karate Center in Farmingville, Senese spends his days teaching karate and kick boxing. He is married to a Japanese woman who cooks only Japanese foods. "I eat a lot of seaweed, tofu, soybean soup called miso, brown rice, a lot of vegetables, a lot of fish. I work out every day. It is part of my life. When I was in college, I studied a Chinese philosophy of life, which is an internal way of feeling where your place is in the universe and how to conduct yourself. We're living what the book has been describing."

If more people like Senese followed the Okinawan ways, they could slow down their aging process as well, says Thomas Perls, author of "Living to 100: Lessons in Living to your Maximum Potential at Any Age" (Basic Books, $14). As principal investigator of the New England Centenarian Study, Perls has been studying centenarians in the United States. He says, "What Okinawans are doing is maximally taking advantage of their average set of genes and they're living many more years in very good health. In this country ... half the [people are] overweight, way too many people still smoke and only 15 percent of people over the age of 65 regularly exercise." All those factors put Americans at risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer. "If we just made a major dent in those basic health related behaviors, I say we could add at least 10 years to our life expectancy."

Tips for Getting With the Program

IN "THE OKINAWA PROGRAM: How the World's Longest-Lived People Achieve Everlasting Health - And How You Can Too" (Clarkson Potter, $24.95), Dr. Bradley Willcox and his co-authors outline a four-week program that can put you on the way to a longer, healthier life by following elements of the Asian lifestyle. The researchers offer guidance on incorporating positive dietary changes with weekly menus and recipes, review exercise habits and make daily recommendations, provide advice on overcoming obstacles, help you develop optimistic attitudes and offer ways to become more spiritual.

In a nutshell, here's Willcox's advice:

Strive to eat a low-calorie, plant-based diet that includes at least five servings of fruits and vegetables, lots of legumes, soy and whole grain products. Eat fish at least three times a week and limit your intake of dairy and meat.

Exercise regularly. Do strength training twice a week and cardiovascular activity three times a week, and don't forget to stretch. Pick activities you enjoy.

Work on dealing with stress. Use meditation and other breathing exercises to help you restructure how you perceive stress so you can change the way you respond.

Develop your spiritual side. Whether it's meditating or finding solace in a group, find something that works for you.

Copyright © 2001, Newsday, Inc.