The fountain of youth or immortality have been dramatized and desired by people all over. Are these realistic dreams? I think not, but what about the idea of aging successfully. To live a long, healthy (disease free) life. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Today most of us fear the risk of heart disease, stroke, or cancer (or occurrence) of these diseases, who live beyond the century marker. The Japanese (especially women) have the highest life expectancy in the world. We’re going to look at the Okinawa, who have a well documented plethora of centenarians. They have more people over 100 years old per 100,000 population anywhere in the world. They have the lowest rates for cancer, heart disease, and stroke. Women in Okinawa have the highest age expectancy of all age groups. Some studies, suggest genetics as part of this (up to 1/3) because siblings of centenarians tend to live longer as well, but I would say that environment and lifestyle are the key factors. I firmly believe if Americans changed their lifestyles (especially eating habits) occurrences of these diseases would dramatically decrease, because we use genetic predisposition as an excuse for a lack of health and disease. So what accounts for the Okinawa’s phenomenal ages? First off not only are they older, but their quality of life is high. They’re lean (the average BMI is 18-22) and energetic, with less diseases. Reasons for most of their benefits are attributed to
- good diet
- high levels of physical activity
- moderate alcohol use
- no smoking
- positive attitudes
What do they eat? A key point to make first, is that they eat less calories (say compared to the average American). They practice Hara Hachi Bu, where they eat until they are 80% full (rather than overstuffing themselves with ridiculous portion sizes). Eating less calories produces less free radicals. Free radicals are generated by metabolizing food into energy (which damages molecules like tissues and DNA). They increase the risk of chronic diseases. So eating less calories will increase life span. So where are they getting their calories? Okinawans eat vegetables in abundance (dark leafy greens and seaweed are just some forms). They also eat fruits, although, not nearly that much, compared to the amount of vegetables they consume. Protein sources? Fish of course, they are part of the island (surrounded by water) of Japan. This provides them with those oh-so essential omega-3 fatty acids (important for such things as cognition and inflammation), plus their vegetables are providing them with an array of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. In addition to being low in calories, their diet is low in glycemic load (less sugar, so that they’re not spiking their insulin levels and causing inflammation). Physical activity? Okinawas aren’t hitting the gym daily or killing themselves on treadmills; they get enough through everyday activities. This includes walking and gardening; slow aerobic activities (check out past blogs such as “Walking, Better than Running”). Other forms of exercise may include some kinds of soft martial arts, but once again they’re not just going through the motions and doing it to ‘get fit’ like its a chore. It connects organically to their spiritual beliefs. They believe health and longevity are achieved by nurturing you ki (life energy) and by balancing life in tune with how nature intended. This fits right into their reduced stress (it’s my personal belief that stress does not exist, but we create it in our minds, therefore we only have stress because we believe it) and increased moods. Tested Okinawans proved to be generally unstressed and maintained a positive outlook on life (great coping skills, in addition to a deep sense of spirituality, meaning and purpose). This has actually been correlated to their reduced risk of dementia. The Okinawans have some truly outstanding health facts. Studies individuals, not only have lower heart disease rates, but low cholesterol, low homocysteine levels (amino acid that causes damage to arterial walls, usually associated with those with low folate (leafy greens) and vitamins B6 and B12 intake), and clean, healthy arteries. Another chronic disease form-cancer, they have great figures (especially hormone-dependent forms. They have 80% less risk of breast and prostate cancers, and 50% less risk of ovarian and colon cancers. What else effects aging? Bone health- how about things like replacement hips and osteoporosis. Picture all those elderly you see shuffling around because picking up their feet increases the risk of falling, which increases their risks of snapping one of their frail and brittle bones! Okinawans have less risk of bone fractures and their bone density decreases at a slower rate. Why? Their high calcium consumption through diet, high activity levels, and of course vitamin D (we’ve discussed this before too, the sun is your friend so Go Outside!) Hormonally they’re superior too! They have more natural DHEA, testosterone, and estrogen than Americas of the same age (which contributes to their successful aging too). Higher levels of testosterone (which is important to both males and females) helps maintain muscle mass, which naturally decreases with age, but rapid loss can lead to sarcopenia (which many elderly Americans suffer). Muscles are important for not only movement, but posture and keeping you up right. DHEA is an indicator of biological aging, so the Okinawans higher levels, mean that they age slower than Americans and others. Higher levels of estrogen (once again important to both sexes) protects against osteoporosis and heart disease. Speaking of estrogen, though, Okinawan women tend to experience menopause naturally and have less complications (hot flashes, hip fractures, or coronary heart disease). Doesn’t this all seem like part of a true American dream? Not only to live a long life, but a quality life. Imagine aging with your loved ones disease-free and functioning with full cognition. The Okinawans just further support all I’ve been reading and preaching. It’s so simple: eat whole foods (load up on your veggies and omega-3 rich foods), move (you don’t have to run miles a day, just get out and enjoy the sun with your family), and have a positive out look (don’t create stress in your life). It doesn’t have to be difficult, just take a page form the Okinawan’s ways.