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Okinawa and Longevity
The islands of Okinawa, Japan, were estimated to have nearly 740 centenarians in 2006—90 percent of whom were women—out of a population of 1.3 million. This represents about 50 centenarians for every 100,000 people, according to the Okinawa Centenarian Study, headed by Dr. Makoto Suzuki. In most developed lands, the ratio is thought to be between 10 and 20 per 100,000.
The ongoing study, said to be “the longest continuously running centenarian study in the world,” found that “an unusual number of centenarians [were] in extraordinarily healthy shape.” To find out why, Suzuki and his team examined the lifestyle and genetics of over 900 centenarians, as well as many other Okinawans in their 70’s or older. The researchers found that the subjects tended to be lean and fit, that their arteries were clean, and that they had remarkably low rates of cancer and heart disease. And of those in their late 90’s, fewer had dementia than comparable populations in other developed lands. The secret?
One major factor was genetics. But there were other factors too—the avoidance of tobacco, moderation in the use of alcohol, and a good diet. The Okinawan diet tends to be low in calories and high in vegetables and fruits, natural fiber, and good fats (omega-3, monounsaturated fat). And the people have the habit of eating only until they are about 80 percent full. “You should stop at the first feeling of fullness you get,” says Dr. Bradley Willcox, a coinvestigator in the study. “There’s about a 20-minute delay before the stomach tells the brain.”
Okinawans keep physically active through gardening, daily walking, traditional dancing, or other activities. Personality testing revealed the centenarians to be optimistic and adaptable. They handled stress well, and the women especially manifested “strong social integration.”
“There’s no magic pill” for longevity, says Willcox. As the study revealed, it is influenced by genes, diet, exercise, good habits, “and healthy ways of coping with stress.”
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