From The New York Post, May 1, 2001
There's no Shangri-La, but Okinawa comes pretty close to being that mythical land of perpetual youth. This chain of islands off Japan is home to some of the liveliest oldsters on the planet. Many live more than a century and have the birth certificates to prove it. Heart disease and dementia are rare and breast and prostate cancer are practically unheard of.
How they do it - and how you can try to duplicate it - is the focus of a new book that contends that lifestyle, not genetics, is the key to a healthy and active old age.
It's called "The Okinawa Program," and its authors - twin-brother gerontologists Bradley Willcox and D. Craig Willcox and Japanese doctor Makoto Suzuki - offer tips on everything from meditation to meal-planning.
One of the biggest challenges in researching it, says 39-year-old Bradley Willcox, a geriatrics fellow at Harvard Medical School, was keeping up with the elders.
"There was one 108-year-old guy who was living in Ontario but maintained the Okinawan way of life. Every time we called him, he was out fishing," says Willcox. "His 90-odd-year-old wife would say, 'You just missed him!'"
The Willcoxes and Suzuki examined over 600 Okinawan centenarians, plus countless "youngsters" in their 70s, 80s and 90s. Not only were many still fishing, but others were farming, running food stands or practicing the gentle martial art of t'ai chi.
"There is no word for 'retirement' in the Okinawan language," Willcox says. "People keep doing what they've always done."
Just how big a part genetics plays in all this is open to debate. "A lot of gerontologists feel [longevity] is two-thirds lifestyle, one-third genetics," Willcox says. "While there are several genes clearly associated with premature or delayed aging, lifestyle still acts on these genes."
Indeed, the younger people of Okinawa, seduced by fast food and TV, are succumbing to the illnesses - heart disease, stroke, cancer - their elders have avoided.
So what are the older Okinawans doing right?
According to the researchers, everything. They eat lots of plant foods - soy, vegetables, fruit and whole grains - a diet that's shown to keep the arteries unclogged, the better for cardiovascular health. They get most of their soy from tofu and edamame, the raw soybeans that the Canadian-born Willcox reports "go great with beer."
Not that Okinawans drink much. Nor do they eat much, averaging 500 fewer calories a day than Americans. And while they love their pork stew - a traditional delicacy some Okinawans swear is the secret of their longevity - they eat it only occasionally, and cook the meat so long the fat disappears.
Personality plays a part, too. The Okinawan attitude, Willcox says, is part Type A self-confident cockiness and another part "go with the flow" adaptability. Rarely do they feel rushed, and that laid-back attitude goes a long way toward minimizing stress.
"We in the West suffer from hurry sickness," Willcox says. "We try to do more and more in less and less time, and that kind of constant stress can have devastating long-term consequences - like dementia, the premature aging of the brain."
On the other hand, he says, physical stress - exercise - is good for the body, and Okinawa, home of karate and other martial arts, preaches a life of physical and mental fitness.
Not only that, he says, but "I've never seen a place where people dance so much." In Okinawa, dancing breaks out spontaneously - not only at parties, but at the end of a long work day.
Since embarking on the study seven years ago, Willcox says he's incorporated a little bit of Okinawa into his own life.
"I was always into fitness but now I meditate more and eat more soy foods," he says. "I've also become more relaxed . . . I figure I'm in here for a century and I'm planning my life accordingly."
By Barbara Hoffman
May 1, 2001
© The New York Post