September 12, 2023

Live to Be 100: Six Lessons from the ‘Land of Immortals’

Okinawans, on average, live longer than anyone else on the planet. Here’s a closer look into why.

For the first time in about 100 years, life expectancy in the United States is dropping. We all have our suspicions of a particular medical intervention that could be contributing to it, but even with that aside, Americans aren’t healthy.

According to the CDC, 41.9% of Americans aged 20 and over are obese, and 73.6% are overweight. As such, whatever most Americans are led to believe are effective strategies for losing weight and eating healthy, the data suggests those methods are not working.

So, what IS working?

Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow, has been studying the longest-living people on the planet for the past 20 years.

After stumbling across a study on the Okinawans’ longevity, he faced a great mystery — why do people from Okinawa, Japan live longer than anyone else in the world?

During a recent trip to Okinawa, Buettner met a woman by the name of Umeto Yamashiro. She could walk, talk, and participate in recreational games as if she were 70.

Umeto Yamashiro. Age: 101. Image via Secrets of the Blue Zones.

She even had the mental acuity and dexterity to play and sing a song with perfect precision.

So, what’s Umeto’s secret? In a new documentary titled, Secrets of the Blue Zones, Buettner summarized the six main reasons why he thinks Okinawa is the ‘Land of Immortals’:

1.) Medicinal Foods

Okinawans have a diet that is distinct in several ways. Primarily, they consume a high percentage of purple sweet potatoes, or beni imo, which make up about 67% of their caloric intake.

These potatoes are nutrient-dense, rich in fiber, and have more antioxidants than blueberries. Okinawans also eat other health-promoting foods like mugwort, goya, and tofu. Their tofu is especially nutrient-rich compared to other forms of tofu.

Additionally, their diet includes a variety of foods known for their medicinal and health benefits, such as anti-inflammatory properties or blood sugar-lowering effects.

“So it's actually the range of foods that is likely fueling long lives here,” concluded Buettner.

2.) Caloric Density

While the FDA recommends a daily caloric intake of 2,000 calories per day, the Average American consumes closer to 3600 calories per day. In contrast, Okinawans typically consume about 2000 calories per day.

The American diet is often high in processed foods, sugars, and meats, which are often calorie-dense but not nutritionally rich. This is no mere accident because, in the 1980s, the increase in available calories per person led to marketing tactics designed to make people eat more, including larger portion sizes and additives to enhance taste and texture.

In contrast, the Okinawan diet is packed with nutrients without all the calories. Buettner drew a striking contrast between a conventional American hamburger and a traditional Okinawan meal. The American burger, easily consumed in just a minute or two, packs a hefty 750 calories, whereas the traditional Okinawan meal takes more time to eat and contains a mere 350 calories.

As we all know, excess calories lead to weight gain, which can lead to an array of health issues.

3.) Hara Hachi Bu

You may have noticed that what you eat and how you eat is one of the major themes to living a longer life. Lesson #3 is no different, as the Okinawans have a cultural practice of saying the phrase "hara hachi bu" before meals, which reminds them to stop eating when their stomachs are 80% full.

This practice, combined with the naturally lower caloric density of their foods, contributes to their lower rates of obesity and longer lifespans.

4.) Balance

One of the key differences between the lifestyles of Okinawans and Americans is the incorporation of physical movement into everyday life.

In Okinawa, there is a striking lack of traditional furniture in homes. Instead of sitting on sofas or chairs, people sit on the floor, often on tatami mats. This lifestyle choice necessitates getting up and down from the floor multiple times a day, essentially incorporating functional exercises like squats into everyday life. This improves core strength, lower body strength, and balance, potentially preventing falls, a significant risk for the elderly in America.

Another ubiquitous feature of Okinawan life is gardening. Even those well into their 80s and beyond often tend a garden, involving them in low-intensity, range-of-motion physical activities. This "exercise" is embedded into daily life, unlike in America, where exercise is more often set aside as a structured activity that you may or may not get around to doing.

So, if you’re the type of person who often buys a gym membership and never uses it, you might be better off making a habit of taking the stairs instead of the elevator — or getting up and walking around at regular intervals during work.

5.) Moai

In America, loneliness is increasingly becoming a public health crisis. Studies indicate that loneliness can severely affect longevity, even reducing life expectancy by up to 15 years.

The Okinawans have a concept called “moai.” A moai is essentially a social support network — a group of people who grow up together and share common interests. Initially, these groups were formed to pool financial resources, especially during times of crisis. Over time, however, the bonds strengthen, and the moai becomes a source of social and emotional support. The members of a moai meet up regularly and share life experiences, joys, and troubles. This provides a strong sense of community and belonging, which is known to be beneficial for mental health and well-being.

6.) Ikigai

In Okinawa, the concept of "retirement," as known in Western cultures, is virtually nonexistent. Instead, Okinawans practice what can be best described through the concept of "ikigai," which refers to one's reason for being or purpose in life.

Even in advanced years, Okinawans remain engaged in activities that bring them joy, a sense of community, and overall well-being. These activities can range from gardening, fishing, and cooking to more communal or social tasks like participating in local markets or being involved in a “moai.”

The idea is not to completely cease working or being active but to shift the balance toward activities that are fulfilling and contribute to ongoing wellness, thereby enriching the quality of life at all ages. This approach to living makes aging a different experience, where the older years are not seen as a time of decline, but as an opportunity for continued growth and engagement.

For more longevity insights from all around the world, not just Okinawa, Dan Buettner’s Secrets of the Blue Zones is available to watch on Netflix.

Medical Disclaimer: The medical viewpoints expressed in this article and documentary are for informational purposes only and not intended for self-diagnosis or self-treating of any health-related condition.

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