The Secrets of Longevity
November 01, 2005
National Geographic Magazine features the research of the doctors behind the Okinawa Diet.
An exerpt from the cover story by Dan Beuttner follows...
The first thing you notice about Ushi Okushima is her laugh. It begins in her belly, rumbles up to her shoulders, and then erupts with a hee-haw that fills the room with pure joy. I first met Ushi five years ago at her home in Okinawa, and now it's that same laugh that draws me back to her small wooden house in the seaside village of Ogimi.
This rainy afternoon she sits snugly wrapped in a blue kimono. A heroic shock of hair is combed back from her bronzed forehead revealing alert, green eyes. Her smooth hands lie serenely folded in her lap. At her feet sit her friends, Setsuko and Matsu Taira, cross-legged on a tatami mat, sipping tea.
Since I last visited Ushi, she's taken a new job, tried to run away from home, and started wearing perfume. Predictable behavior for a young woman, perhaps, but Ushi is 103. When I ask about the perfume, she jokes that she has a new boyfriend, then claps a hand over her mouth before unleashing one of her blessed laughs.
With an average life expectancy of 78 years for men and 86 years for women, Okinawans are among the world's longest lived people. More important, elders living in this lush subtropical archipelago tend to enjoy years free from disabilities. Okinawans have a fifth the heart disease, a fourth the breast and prostate cancer, and a third less dementia than Americans, says Craig Willcox of the The Okinawa Centenarian Study.
What's the key to their success? "Ikigai certainly helps:" Willcox offers. The word translates roughly to "that which makes one's life worth living." Older Okinawans, he says, possess a strong sense of purpose that may act as a buffer against stress and diseases such as hypertension. Many also belong to a Okinawan-style moai, a mutual support network that provides financial, emotional, and social help throughout life.
A lean diet may also be a factor. "A heaping plate of Okinawan vegetables, tofu, miso soup, and a little fish or meat will have fewer calories than a small hamburger;" says Makoto Suzuki of the The Okinawa Centenarian Study. "And it will have many more healthy nutrients." What's more, many Okinawans who grew up before World War II never developed the tendency to overindulge. They still live by the Confucian-inspired adage "hara hachi bu--eat until your stomach is 80 percent full."
And they grow much of their own food. Taking one look at the gardens kept by Okinawan centenarians, Greg Plotnikoff, a traditional-medicine researcher at the University of Minnesota, called them "cabinets of preventive medicine." Herbs, spices, fruits, and vegetables, such as Chinese radishes, garlic, scallions, cabbage, turmeric, and tomatoes, he said, "contain compounds that may block cancers before they start."
Ironically, for many older Okinawans this diet was born of hardship. Ushi Okushima grew up barefoot and poor. Her family scratched a living out of Ogimi's rocky terrain, growing sweet potatoes, which formed the core of every meal. To celebrate the New Year, her village butchered a pig, and everyone got a morsel of pork.
During World War II, when U.S. warships shelled Okinawa, Ushi and Setsuko, whose husbands had been conscripted into the Japanese Army, fled to the mountains with their children. "We experienced terrible hunger;" Setsuko recalls.
Ushi now wakes every morning at six and eats a small breakfast of milk, bananas, and tomatoes. Until very recently she grew most of her food ( she gave up gardening when she took a job). But her tradition-honored daily rituals haven't changed: morning prayers to her ancestors, tea with friends, lunch with family, an afternoon nap, a sunset social hour with friends, and before bed a cup of sake infused with the herb mugwort. "It helps me sleep:" she says.
Back in Ushi's house we're finishing our tea. Outside, dusk is falling; rain patters on the roof. Ushi's daughter, Kikue, who is 78 and finds little amusement in the attention her mother draws, shoots me a glare that I take to mean "you've overstayed your welcome." (When Ushi ran away from home, she was actually fleeing an argument with Kikue. She packed a bag and boarded a bus without telling her daughter. A relative caught up with her in a town 40 miles away.)
Ushi, Setsuko, and Matsu take the cue and fall silent in unison. These women have shared each other's fortunes and endured each other's sorrows for nearly a century and now seem to communicate wordlessly.
What is Ushi's ikigai, I ask -- that powerful sense of purpose that older Okinawans are said to possess?
"It's her longevity itself;" answers her daughter. "She brings pride to our family and this village, and now feels she must keep living even though she is often tired." I look to Ushi for her own answer. "My ikigai is right here," she says with a slow sweep of her hand that takes in Setsuko and Matsu. "If they die, I will wonder why I am still living."