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The Okinawans – Japanese Longevity and Healthy Aging

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Updated April 09, 2014

The island of Okinawa, in Japan, is the best place on earth for healthy aging. The Okinawans have:
  • more people over 100 years old per 100,000 population than anywhere else in the world
  • the lowest death rates from cancer, heart disease and stroke (the top three killers in the US)
  • the highest life expectancy for both males and females over 65
  • females in Okinawa have the highest life expectancy in all age groups

What are the Okinawans Doing Right?

This is a question that has been studied by researchers since 1976. Over the years, the lifestyle and genetics of over 800 Okinawan centenarians have been well-documented. Here are some of the findings:
  • It’s True: Great attention has been paid to validating the claims of Okinawan centenarians. Luckily, Japan instituted a strict record keeping system and census policy in the 1870s. The claims of long life of the Okinawans have been verified.
  • Healthy Aging: Not only do the Okinawans live longer, they age successfully. Many of the centenarians studied were found to be lean, energetic and have low rate of chronic illness like heart disease and cancer.
  • Genetics: Studies show that the genetics of the Okinawans help them in preventing inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. Siblings of long-lived Okinawans also tend to live long, healthy lives. However, when Okinawans move to new environments (causing changes in lifestyle habits), they lose their longevity. This indicates that other factors are at play besides genetics.
  • Free Radicals: The centenarians have lower levels of free radicals in their blood. This is largely due to the fact that Okinawans simply eat fewer calories than the average person due to a cultural practice of eating until you are only 80 percent full called Hara Hachi Bu. Less calories mean fewer free radicals created in the digestive process. Fewer free radicals means better cardiovascular health and less risk of cancer and other chronic illnesses.
  • Heart Health: The study participants have clean, healthy arteries, low cholesterol and low homocysteine levels. Researchers believe these low, healthy levels may decrease the risk of heart disease in Okinawans by as much as 80 percent. The reasons for these low levels are thought to be a good diet, high levels of physical activity, moderate alcohol use, not smoking, and positive attitude that reduces stress.
  • Low Cancer Risk: The Okinawans also have less risk for hormone-dependent cancers (breast, prostate, ovarian and colon cancers). Specifically, they have 80 percent less risk of breast and prostate cancer and 50 percent less risk of ovarian and colon cancers. Researchers attribute this risk reduction to eating fewer calories, consuming lots of fruits and vegetables, having good fats in the diet, eating plenty of fiber and staying physically active.
  • Bone Health: No surprise that Okinawans also have less risk of hip fractures than Americans. The bone density for the centenarians decreases at a slower rate than other Japanese people. This may be due to a higher calcium intake in the Okinawan diet, more exposure to vitamin D in sunlight and higher levels of physical activity.
  • Natural Menopause: Women in Okinawa do not use estrogen replacement therapy, but still have few menopause-related complications. It is thought that the phytoestrogens in soy (a common food on Okinawa) as well as high levels of physical activity help reduce the negative effects of menopause.
  • More Sex Hormones: Okinawans have more natural DHEA, estrogen and testosterone than Americans of the same age. Each of these hormones is thought to indicate ‘hormonal age’ in people. High levels of testosterone help maintain muscle mass. Estrogen is thought to protect against osteoporosis and heart disease. DHEA is known to decrease with age, some researchers use DHEA level as a marker how rapidly someone is aging. Diet and continual physical activity are thought to explain why these hormones remain high in elderly Okinawans.
  • Positive Outlook: When the personalities of Okinawans was tested, it was found that they were generally unstressed and maintained a positive outlook on life. They had strong coping skills and a deep sense of spirituality, meaning and purpose. Positive outlook in the Okinawans is thought to explain their reduced risk for dementia.

The Bottom Line

The Okinawans show us that living a healthy lifestyle will not only help us live longer, but will also help us live disease-free. Lifestyle changes can add healthy years to your life, making you feel better now and when you are 110. Get started now by learning to change your eating habits, exercise more and relax.

Sources:

Okinawan Centenarian Study.

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