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The people of Okinawa live longer and healthier lives than people anywhere else in the world. Large numbers of Okinawans have remained strong and active into their 70s, 80s, 90s and even beyond 100. They have amazingly low occurrences of heart disease, cancer and strokes. The phenomenon has been studied for the past 25 years in the Okinawan Centenarian Study, and this year the results were summarised and published in English for the first time. The study’s findings give an insight into why the Okinawans live so long and possible reasons why they seem to suffer so much less than other peoples from the common diseases of aging.

The now famous book, The Okinawa Program, explains the research and also provides advice on how it is possible to increase your own longevity by taking some pointers from these super-fit grandparents and great-grandparents. The Okinawa Program is already a best-seller in the US and people all over the world are now looking to Okinawa to show them the elixir of everlasting health.

It is possible that the Okinawan people have a natural genetic predisposition to be more resistant to certain diseases, but the study shows that more important than the genetics of a person is the environment in which they live. It’s not the genes that you’ve got that matter; it’s what you do with them. Unfortunately, the key to the long healthy life of Okinawans cannot be found from just one magic vitamin that can be supplemented in pill form. However, there are several lifestyle factors that improve a person’s overall health and chance of longevity that include diet, exercise and a stress-reducing psycho-spiritual outlook on life.

The traditional diet in Okinawa has a large amount of soy and vegetables, and is low in meat and accompanying saturated fats. This means that you are more likely to see a centenarian eating goya (a bitter tasting gourd vegetable) and tofu than a cheeseburger and fries. Large amounts of vegetables and whole grains bulk out the diet and provide essential nutrients and good fats (poly and monounsaturated) while lower amounts of the wrong kinds of fats (saturated and trans) mean that their arteries are not getting clogged up.

This may, therefore, be one of the main reasons that, on average, Okinawans have 80% less heart attacks than Westerners. While many Western pensioners don’t do anything more physical than switch channels or fill in crosswords, Okinawans remain active. Walking, gardening, dance and martial arts all help maintain their cardiovascular systems while also keeping up muscle and bone strength.

The slower pace of life in Okinawa, prayer, meditation and spiritual beliefs (particularly among older women) provide greater peace of mind. There is a strong link between spiritual wellbeing and physical health. If a person is happy and content, then their immune system will be stronger and they are less likely to become sick. Conversely, a person who is depressed is more likely to become sick and less able to recover.

Okinawa is described by many as the ‘real’ Shangri La, to differentiate it from other so-called geriatric utopias, such as Abkhasia, Hunza and Vilcabamba, where claims of extreme longevity have turned out to be groundless. But all is not well in paradise. Okinawan lifestyles are changing and the statistics for mortality and morbidity are following. A more Western diet high in saturated fat combined with less physical activity, and more smoking and drinking means that heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes and other lifestyle related diseases are on the rise and can be seen at increasingly younger ages. This, coupled with an increasing suicide rate in young and middle-aged males, means that Okinawa’s number one ranking in the longevity charts is slipping.

The Okinawa Program book aims to change unhealthy lifestyle practices in both Okinawa and Western societies by providing several self-help chapters that give advice from diet to meditation and even becoming and staying optimistic.

Are you interested in living to 100 years old? No? How about 90? What about a really healthy 80 year old? Would that be OK?

As a health professional and lifestyle coach, especially as I specialise in longevity, one of the saddest things I see in the western world is people’s attitude to aging. Unfortunately, our only view of ‘old people’ and aging is sickness, immobility, senility, dying and death. And even more frightening is that this view is accurate, due to our current aged population’s lifestyle for the last 80 years.

But do we have to be the same? Do we have to go down that same path of sickness, immobility, senility and poor quality aging as our parents, grandparents and great grandparents? Are you resigned to the same fate? How you ever thought about it? Most people haven’t and never will.

There are some cultures alive today who still believe in and live a ‘warrior spirit’, and some that follow success and prosperity, while others scarcity and poverty. And some, when it comes to quality health and wellbeing, especially in older age, are focused on living well and living long into their 80s, 90s and to 100 or over. What’s their secret? Attitude. Belief systems. Role models.

In Western countries, our attitude towards aging well is nothing short of disgraceful. We have so many socially conditioned thoughts, beliefs and verbal expressions that not only speed up the aging process, but create false milestones for poor aging and sickness. Some examples are ‘40 and over the hill’ or “You’re 50 (or 60) now and should be slowing down’, and these are compounded by earlier and earlier plans to retire (expire), start thinking about retirement and then nursing homes.

We say things like, “I’m here for a good time, not a long time”, and “If I ever get that old, shoot me”. The Western world’s health view is live hard, die young. And that view is seriously reflected in our health statistics and reality.

Role models and living examples are also extremely important. In some cultures, where aging well is revered and respected, and even a life pursuit, their role models are healthy, happy, active aged members of their communities – I’m talking about 80-100 year olds who are saner, sharper and healthier than people in the West who are 20-30 years younger. In Okinawa, it is a cultural pursuit to try and reach 97 years old, which is a sacred number in aging. They experience 97% less age-related disability and sickness. Stop and read that again! 97% LESS age-related disability. Isn’t that amazing?

While Australians and other Westerners are starting to experience some serious signs of disability in their 50s, and are having to ‘shut down’ and accept ‘Western aging’ disability in their 60s, 70s and are really ‘just waiting to die’ by their 80s, most Okinawan, Japanese and other countries’ elderly are living sprite, active, purpose-filled, healthy and happy lives.

Longevity is not about living forever. What I’m proposing for Westerners is a new definition of longevity, one that involves a new way of thinking. A new attitude towards aging and what aging means to us individually and collectively as a nation or culture. And with that change in attitude must come a change in lifestyle habits and practises, such as a new awareness of quality nutrition, smarter exercise, a better understanding of the aging process in humans, a renewed sense of life purpose, a deeper connection to something spiritual ‘out there’ or ‘in here’ that is driving and shaping us, and some new social conditioning.

I love life. I love learning and growing and experiencing new things in life daily. You may share this value, or have other meaningful values that drive you. Whatever they are, and whatever your life purpose and dreams, wouldn’t you want to pursue and achieve them for as long as possible? While I do accept that I don’t know what lies ahead for me in life, or how long I’ll live, I do have the goal of living to 100 or beyond, and that is by design, rather than destiny or fate. My own ideal and role models are healthy, happy, active and wise aged people, 80-100 year olds, and not the decrepit, sad and sick aged population that we seem to have accepted as the best example of elderly life and aging (with respect to all the wonderful aged people who we all know. I respect you. I thank you for your contribution to the nation. I just don’t accept that your age-related condition is the only option for my future.)

Who knows, with a simple shift in attitude and awareness, we could all be healthy, happy 90-100 year olds in the near future, setting shining examples of aging, super health and longevity for generations to come. I hope you join me on that journey.

- by Dean Bleasdale