Longevity Strategies from longest-lived people

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The residents of Okinawa, an island chain of Japan, are among the healthiest and longest-lived people in the world. Okinawa has more 100-year-olds than anywhere else 33.6 per 100,000 people, compared with approximately 10 per 100,000 in the US.

The 25-year Okinawa Centenarian Study noted that, compared with Americans, those from Okinawa have…

  • 80% lower risk of breast and prostate cancers.
  • 50% lower risk of colon and ovarian cancers.
  • 40% fewer hip fractures.
  • Minimal risk of heart disease.

What is the secret to the Okinawans’ longevity and what can we do to achieve the same healthful vigor? The following factors are especially important…

Accepting attitude

While many Americans have Type A personalities, Okinawans believe that life’s travails will work themselves out. The average American might be said to suffer from hurry sickness. Okinawans prefer to work at their own pace, referred to locally as Okinawa Time. They don’t ignore stress but they rarely internalize it.

Stress signals your body to secrete large amounts of cortisol and other stress hormones. That damages the heart and blood vessels and accelerates bone loss.

To reduce stress: Don’t take on more than you can handle take advantage of flextime at work don’t get worked up about things you can’t change, such as traffic jams or rude behavior, practice deep breathing and meditation.

Low calorie intake

Okinawans consume an average of 1,900 calories a day, compared with 2,500 for Americans. Studies have shown that animals given a diet with 40% fewer calories than the diets of free-feeding animals live about 50% longer.

Reason: Harmful oxygen molecules (free radicals) are created every time the body metabolizes food for energy. Because the Okinawans take in fewer calories, their lifetime exposure to free radicals which damage cells in the arteries, brain and other parts of the body are reduced.

Plant-based diet

About 98% of the traditional Okinawan diet consists of sweet potatoes, soy-based foods, grains, fruits and vegetables. This is supplemented by a small amount of fish (and lean pork on special occasions). These plant foods contain phytonutrients chemical compounds that reduce free radical damage. A plant-based diet is also high in fiber, which lowers cholesterol and reduces the risk of diabetes, breast cancer and heart disease. The current Okinawan diet is about 80% plant food.

Wok advantage: The Okinawans’ style of cooking is high-heat stir-frying in a wok, which requires little oil. They typically stir-fry with canola oil, which is high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat and omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids lower levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol while increasing levels of HDL (good) cholesterol.

Soy foods

Elderly Okinawans eat an average of two servings of soy foods daily such as tofu, miso soup and soybean sprouts. Soy is rich in flavonoids, chemical compounds that reduce the tendency of LDL to stick to arteries, thereby reducing the risk of heart disease or stroke. Soy foods may also protect against cancer, menopausal discomfort (such as hot flashes) and osteoporosis. You don’t have to eat a lot of soy foods to get similar benefits. One daily portion of tofu (nearly three ounces) or soy milk (eight ounces) might be defensive.


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Fish harvested from the waters surrounding Okinawa is an integral part of the residents’ daily diet. The omega-3 fatty acids in fish “thin” the blood and reduce the risk of clots the main cause of heart attack.

Omega-3s also inhibit the body’s production of inflammatory chemicals called prostaglandins. That may lower the risk of inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis and the bowel disorder Crohn’s disease.

Americans can get similar benefits by eating fish at least three times a week. Cold-water fish salmon, mackerel, tuna contain the largest amounts of omega-3s. Fish oil supplements are a worthwhile alternative for people who are “fish phobic.”

Healthy weight

The traditional Okinawan diet is low in fat and processed foods, as well as calories so obesity is rare in elder Okinawans. This means their risk of weight-related health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, is much lower than that of Americans. This is in stark contrast to younger Okinawans, who eat a more Westernized diet and have the highest obesity levels in Japan.

Postmenopausal bonus: After menopause, a woman’s main source of estrogen is no longer the ovaries, but extra glandular tissues, mainly body fat. Women who maintain a healthful weight produce less estrogen, which reduces the risk for breast cancer.

Jasmine tea

Okinawans drink about three cups of jasmine tea daily. It contains more antioxidant flavonoids than black tea. Those antioxidants may reduce risk for heart disease as well as some cancers.

Not smoking

In the US, hundreds of thousands of people die from smoking-related diseases annually. Few elderly Okinawans have ever smoked although one man interviewed for the study took up smoking when he was 100. He got bored with it and quit the next year. About 60% of younger Okinawan men now smoke.


People are healthiest when they combine aerobic, strengthening and flexibility exercises. Okinawans often get all three by practicing martial arts or a traditional style of dance that resembles tai chi. Smart regimen…

  • Swimming, biking, jogging, etc. for at least 30 minutes three times weekly.
  • Lifting weights at least 20 minutes twice a week.
  • Flexibility exercises yoga or stretching whenever you can and certainly after each aerobic or strength-training session.

Moai is the Okinawan word that means “meeting for a common purpose.” Groups of friends, colleagues or relatives get together at least once a month to talk, share gossip and provide emotional or even financial support.

People who maintain active social networks live longer and are less likely to get sick. When they do get sick, they recover more quickly if they have the support of friends.

Spirituality and religion

People who have spiritual or religious beliefs live longer than those who don’t. Spirituality and religion are a part of daily life in Okinawa. People pray daily for health and peace. They look out for one another in a “help thy neighbor” ethic called Yuimaru. Moderation is a key cultural value.

Women are the religious leaders in Okinawa. They also tend to have very high levels of life satisfaction and respect as they age.

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