Does Okinawa Have the World's Longest Living Women?--Is It A Result of A Good Diet Or Low Stress?
My familiarity with Okinawa began at a much younger age upon learning my maternal grandparents immigrated to Kauai from Okinawa in the early 1920s. They raised five daughters--one was my mother.
Over the years, I have read stories and articles related to longevity in Okinawa. In fact, some writers report that longevity is greater in Okinawa than it is in Japan, partly because more people eat white rice in Japan and rice is not termed as a functional food item in Okinawa lending towards a good diet.
As far as stressors are concerned, one of my observations learned from relatives living on Kauai is their state of contentment which does not include the rat-race mentality so many of us in the "mainland" (as they refer to the states). I would suggest the effects of their attitudes are cultural based, in part. I also suggest I could be happy waking up to see a palm tree outside my bedroom window on a tropical island too. Although Kauai is not meant to be representative of Okinawa, the aura of laid back restfulness might be a small example of what exists culturally in Okinawa as a consideration of the stress free factor plus they are not as self-indulgent.
In living in the land of plenty and convenience, would we change our lifestyle in order to embrace the secret of longevity of the residents of Okinawa? (Map of Okinawa is included below.)
Where Is Okinawa?
Okinawa consists of 161 islands which lie between Japan and Taiwan with only 44 of the islands allegedly inhabited. Naha is the capital of Okinawa Prefecture, Japan. If you click on the little figure in the upper left-hand corner and place on one of the islands, you can access street view.
The missions and goals of the ORCLS can be learned here.
The Longevity Study of the Okinawan Centenarians
A centenarian is a person who lives to be 100 years old or beyond that age. In 1997, the Okinawa Research Center for Longevity Science ("ORCLS") was formed, some 22 years after the Okinawa Centenarian Study ("OCS") was initiated by Dr. Makotu Suzuki, cardiologist, geriatrician and author.
Dr. Suzuki is highly credentialed and recognized for his contributions and essentially steering the boat on the continuing study of longevity relating to the Okinawans. Many researchers have questioned whether it is environmental or genetic. It stands to reason, however, how the absence of smoking and healthy moderation of alcohol intake along with maintaining a healthy diet (including lots of fresh produce) contribute to longevity. Also, weight is kept under control because they do not come close to overeating. The women also have innate strengths and focus on being positive in mind. Overall, the OCS emphasizes in its study that the longevity is a result of genetic predisposition, healthy eating habits, daily exercise routines, and creating a harmony that affects or eliminates stressors.
The study was initiated due to many factors. It was observed that centenarians on Okinawa were aging with less instances of cancer and diseases related to the heart. This slow progression of aging presented interesting details, which many of us who want to promote longevity regardless of gender might want to know what behaviors can be adopted to have this slow aging process--a seemingly healthier process.
This study would analyze various elements of consideration. Is it their diet? What is their lifestyle which would define what stressors they eliminate? Is it genetic? The research would study why inhabitants of Okinawa were also living longer than those on Japan. Why?
WHY STUDY CENTENARIANS?
Research has indicated people on Okinawa are much healthier and live longer than anyone else in the world. The longevity includes ages from 70 to 100 of which has fewer reports of cancer or diseases of the heart. From the mid-1980s, researchers have been studying this remarkable occurrence, facts of which were published in the Okinawan Centenarian Study. The study was translated into English and released in 2009.
Ten years ago, Paul Wiseman of USA Today wrote,
"Juan Ponce de Leon and James Hilton had it all wrong. The fountain of youth isn't in Florida...and Shangri-la isn't stuck away up in the Himalayas, where Hilton, author of 'Lost Horizon,' placed his fictional paradise.... The nearest thing to a real-life refuge form the ravages of old age and death is here on the Japanese island of Okinawa..."
Interestingly, according to Wiseman's article, while people believe that inhabitants of Japan lived longer, the Okinawans were even living longer than them.
Trend of Life Expectancy At Birth In Japan, Including the Okinawa Prefecture
"The Okinawa Program"
With a foreward written by Dr. Andrew Weil in The Okinawa Program: How the World's Longest-Lived People Achieve Everlasting Health--And How You Can Too, at first glance of what he has to say about his visit to the island as well as meeting one of the authors and incorporating some of the eating behaviors into his lifestyle, convincing a reader this might work starts right there.
The Okinawa Program is based on 25 years of study and research. Obviously, statistics could change if western style eating habits became part of the culture in Okinawa which would also include the effects of smoking and changed diet patterns.
When this book was released, the goal was to promote a healthier lifestyle for the younger people on Okinawa as well as westerners. Clearly, the study revealed and offers convincing evidence that factors such as diet, lifestyle, attitude, and genetics play a role in the life expectancy of the Okinawans. If westerners could embrace a similar diet, lifestyle and attitude, even if genetics may not play a role, maybe the outcome of life expectancy could be further enhanced.
Food Behaviors in Okinawa -- Not Like Unhealthy Food Addictions
The Okinawans' diet consists of eating complex carbohydrates such as dry beans, sweet potatoes (yams) and any green leafy vegetable such as spinach. A difference between a complex carbohydrate and a simple carbohydrate is that the latter is broken down easier, absorbed into the blood stream, and converted to fat. With the complex carbohydrate, it is harder to break down due to the fiber content. Avoid flour products such as white bread, white rice and basic pasta.
The Okinawan diet also consists of food items that are low in fat, sugar and products. Foods consumed include soy, fish, and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. Elderly Okinawans have a diet that consists of functional foods. The foods consumed which are high in anti-oxidants protects bodies from free radical damage. Also, both green and black teas have been suggested to curb the growth of cancerous cells. Indeed, studies show there is the lowest percentage of deaths from cancer in this region than the world.
WHAT FOODS ARE FUNCTIONAL OUTSIDE OF MEETING A NUTRITIONAL NECESSITY? (The following foods are incorporated into the diets of the elderly and after reading about the effects of each, it's understandable and imaginable how their longevity has a positive result.)
Unlike inhabitants in Japan who consume white rice, the Okinawans consume sweet potatoes which are high in Vitamins A, B and C. Sweet potatoes are also high in fiber and are a good source of iron and potassium. It is rich with antioxidants. The purple sweet potato called Imo eaten in Okinawa is said to contain a higher percentage of antioxidants that that of blueberries.
Soy and Goya
Tofu contains good fat and a compound found in soy, isoflavones, may be an explanation as to why there are lower rates of breast cancer in Okinawa. Like most anything you choose to consume, eat this in moderation, Soy is high in protein and a good source of calcium. Goya, a type of melon that is bitter, contains fiber and Vitamin C. It is consumed routinely among the Okinawans and is allegedly being consumed more in Japan.
Konnyaku and Shitake Mushrooms
Konnyaku is jelly-like and made from Konnyaku potatoes that are 97% water and 3% fiber and since the fiber is harder to digest, it basically cleans out the intestines. It is low in calories, has a positive role with cholesterol and allegedly prevents high blood pressure. The shitake mushroom is also low in calories and is very high in all amino acids and antioxidants. The mushrooms also contain Vitamins A,, B12, C and D. There is research conducted to confirm whether the mushrooms actually have any cancer fighting values.
Gobo and Hechima
Gobo is a vegetable root that is high in fiber (complex carbohydrate). Hechima is a type of squash that is low in calories and high in Vitamin C and carotenoids. Also, the proteins found in hechima might also have cancer fight values.
Seaweed, Turmeric and Mugwort
Seaweed has been used for centuries in the Japanese diet. Three of the most popular types are Kombu, Wakame and Nori. Kombu has been used in soups similarly as Wakame being used in miso soup, and Nori is what you see at a sushi bar. Turmeric is a spice that can be used with cooking or added to tea. It allegedly has a positive effect with anti-inflammatory results and could play a role with increasing metabolism. Mugwort, also a spice, can be used in tea. It has been used for its medicinal purposes in treating conditions like insomnia and depression.
Hihatsu and Fennel
Hihatsu is a type of pepper used in cooking and is known to help with stomach issues. Fennel can be consumed in whole or as a spice and its use also involves treating an upset stomach. Fennel is a good source of Vitamin K, like mustard greens, both of which promote bone strength.
Read About Ushi Okushima
- National Geographic Magazine - NGM.com
This article was published by National Geographic in 2005 and the article focuses on longevity and discusses Okinawans. At the time of the discussion, Ushi Okushima was 103.
Lifestyle, Exercise and Meditation
The Okinawans have time time to meditate--they do not have our racing around lifestyle and by "our," I speak of the United States. We are constantly rushing around to get to work, to school, to the grocery store, to our kitchens to hurry dinner, then hurry baths for children, and maybe sit for 30 minutes and off to bed just to get up in the morning and do it all over again. Right? Generally, the Okinawans' lives are not centered around rushing. There is also a greater sense of community, where people are helping each other.
The Okinawans are more active. They do not sit around everyday and channel surf from their sofa or engage in fried chicken and tator tots for dinner. They keep the blood flowing by continuing to work in their gardens and take walks. Their body strengths are enhanced through martial arts activities. They exercise their minds with positive thinking and meditation, and reach to be routinely optimistic. Due to the lifestyle of the Okinawans, it is reported they have 80% fewer heart attacks than people in America.
The Okinawans also have a different outlook on life carrying positive attitudes. They consume fewer calories, exercise routinely (even if it's just walking), practice forms of meditation, and involved with martial arts and their traditional dances. Meditation is essentially looking into yourself focusing on being still, examining your inner core, and raising awareness.
They definitely do not "sweat the small stuff." While it is true they may be genetically predisposed also, I think if it were not the case, the other considerations still prove they are healthy human beings. Outside of maintaining a consistent diet regimen, exercise and attitude are role players in practicing good health. Lastly, what seems to be apparent is a strong sense of purpose--a sense of living, to value life by taking care of it.