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The secret of longevity among Okinawans

October 25, 2001

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OKINAWA: When it comes to life expectancy Japan is something of a contradiction — the Japanese are the longest living people in the world, yet they are dying early of overwork.

Japanese is the only language that has a word — karoshi — for dying from working too hard. The Labour Ministry says 90 people worked themselves to death in 1998, though unofficial estimates put the figure far higher.

The Japan Times says that at least 10,000 people are believed to literally wear themselves out to the point of fatal collapse every year.

At the same time, Japanese who do reach old age do so in greater numbers than anyone else. The average Japanese can expect to live up to 79.9 years — more than anywhere in the world, says a 1998 World Health Organization survey.

In the country’s southernmost island chain, Okinawa, the figure is even higher — 80.6 years. And Okinawan women live even longer — 85.08 years compared to the Japanese average of 83.2 for women.

“Japanese as a whole are the longest lived people in the world,” says Bradley Willcox, co-author of the book The Okinawa Programme released in mid-2001. “The Okinawans happen to be the longest-lived of the longest-lived.”

In fact, many Okinawans live well beyond the average. For every 100,000 people in Okinawa, 30 have passed their 100th birthday, one of the highest rates in the world.

Theories on why people in one part of the country live longer than the rest have often rested in folklore. But the trend has attracted scientific interest, too.

An Okinawa International Conference on Longevity, set to be held on the island on 12-13 November, is expected to attract 250 gerontologists, nutritionists and longevity research specialists from around the world to examine the issue in detail.

Dr Guy Beckman, a Finnish university professor who has been researching Japanese longevity for 10 years, says there are four major factors in the high rate of longevity among Okinawans:

* Good climate (“it is very warm and sunny here,” he says);

* Very good food habit — lots of fish, vegetables, and pork without the fat.

* Excellent working conditions: employees are cared for and job satisfaction is very high; and

* Okinawa’s cultural background: “There are very good social networks and excellent support from family members and relatives,” says Beckman.

The generally accepted reason for Okinawan longevity is the absence of karoshi here. The islanders are known for a carefree and relaxed attitude to life.

When it comes to health, however, Okinawa is a world beater. According to the Ministry of Health, Okinawan rates of coronary heart disease, cancer and stroke are the lowest in the world.

Many researchers focus on the Okinawan diet. The traditional Japanese diet of fish and vegetables with not too much saturated fat from meat, is replicated in Okinawa — but with some special Okinawan features.

Okinawan and mainland cooking differ because of the climate. The warm and sunny weather in semi-tropical Okinawa allows fresh vegetables all year round. This makes it unnecessary to preserve vegetables by pickling in salt, which reduces the Okinawans’ sodium intake.

However, the mainstay of Okinawa’s world beating longevity is clearly a lifetime of healthy habits. The islanders appear to have refined an already beneficial Japanese diet into an even healthier one. —Dawn/Gemini News Service.