Exploring Okinawans' Recipes for Longer Lives

From The New York Times, May 15, 2001

Envy the Okinawans, the inhabitants of the 161 islands that stretch 600 miles between Japan and Taiwan. When Okinawans die, it is at the average age of 86 for women, and over 75 for men, making them the longest-lived people in the world.

Their population includes more than 400 centenarians of 1.3 million (about 33 per 100,000) compared with 5 to 10 per 100,000 in the United States. Heart disease is minimal, stroke rate is remarkably low, breast cancer is so rare that mammograms are not necessary and most aging men there have never even heard of prostate cancer.

What accounts for this astonishing Shangri-La-like situation? What do the Okinawans know and do that we don't? Is it in their genes? Can we emulate them?

For starters, this book, based on a 25-year centenarian study among Okinawans, dispels the notion that genetics explains the population's advantage in avoiding illnesses like arterial disease. "When Okinawans and other Japanese grow up in another country and abandon their traditional ways," the authors argue, "they take on the same arterial disease risk as those in their adopted country."

"Their genetics haven't changed, but their lifestyles have undergone profound alterations," the authors said.

And the Okinawans, it appears, have made it all a science that pays off. We learn that Okinawan elders eat a daily average of seven servings of vegetables and fruits, seven servings of grains and two servings of flavonoid-rich soy products. They also eat omega-3-rich fish several times a week and minimal dairy products and meat.

Exercise on the islands is a way of life martial arts, traditional dance (which many Okinawan men and women learn at an early age) and lots of gardening and walking. Moreover, say the authors, the exercise connects organically with, and reinforces, spiritual beliefs "which may just give them an extra shot of healing power."

John Langone
May 15, 2001
© The New York Times