Okinawa's secret longevity weapons

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

February 2012

There are more centenarians per 100,000 population in Okinawa than in any country on earth. Other regions of the planet make similar claims but none has the long-standing, accurate record keeping system that Japan instituted in the late 19th century. According to the most recent statistics, a Japanese female infant born in 2010 can expect to live to the age of 86 years.

In order to understand how present-day centenarians live so long we need to know what conditions were like 90 or 100 years ago, when they were born. Although Japan was emerging as a world power, Okinawa was its poorest prefecture, as it is today. For the first 50 or so years of their lives those children were often on the verge of starvation. Today they follow a concept known as hara hachi bu: eat until you are 80 percent full. The typical older Okinawan takes in only about 1100 calories per day. Research during the last couple of decades has confirmed that calorie restriction in animals increases lifespan by as much as 150 percent. Perhaps Okinawa has provided a research platform that modern science has discovered only recently.

If there is a secret weapon in Okinawa it might be the sweet potato. For many dwellers of that island it is a daily staple, along with other fruits and vegetables and several kinds of edible seaweed. They enjoy fish and chicken but beef is a rarity and pork is served only on special occasions.

Two other Asian foods appear regularly in the Okinawan cuisine: green tea and soy-based foods, especially tofu. Green tea, usually taken several times a day, is rich in antioxidants and it is associated with a low risk of various forms of cancer. Soy foods contain nutrients that may counteract the effect of estrogen, perhaps explaining why Japanese women have low rates of breast cancer unless they migrate to the United States.

Okinawan centenarians grew up in a non-mechanized culture. An early life characterized by moderately intense daily physical activity probably explains why osteoporosis is so rare among them. Thin all their lives, obesity and diabetes have not robbed them of their mental faculties; most of them can name their great-grandchildren with ease.

Their children follow a different path, a Western diet and a sedentary lifestyle. Not surprisingly, young Okinawans have the highest rate of obesity and type 2 diabetes in Japan. Is that our future?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.