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What We Can Learn About Life from the Oldest People on Earth

Jan 31, 2011 ● By Margalit Tocher

There is no single explanation for how and why some people live much longer than others. But there is a place where more people live longer and healthier lives than anywhere else on earth: Okinawa, Japan. Scientists have been studying this group of seniors to see if we can learn how to live longer and more productive lives. The study, called The Okinawa Centenarian Study, spans over two decades, and the findings are remarkable. They imply that, with some basic lifestyle changes, we folks in the West can increase our lifespan, and ensure that our extra time here is active and fun. Many gerontologists believe that up to two-thirds of our lifespan is in our control. This means it’s not just genetic makeup that controls individual health, but for many of us, it’s also the choices we make.

By learning about the Okinawan lifestyle, we may be able to positively influence our own lives. Let’s look at some of these choices.

Dietary Factors
A major factor in the extraordinary health enjoyed by Okinawa elders is their distinctive diet. It is plant-based; high in fiber, omega-3 fatty acids and flavanoids; and low in protein. It includes low to moderate alcohol intake, plenty of fruits and vegetables and very little saturated fat and sodium. In addition to eating like the Okinawans, we also can adopt their philosophy of ending the meal once we feel 80 percent full. In other words, eat slowly and stop early. The traditional diet also indicates to eat fish three times a week, add soy, eat seven servings of vegetables and fruits per day, drink plenty of water and switch to green tea. Try a meal of delicious wild salmon, tofu, some vegetables and blueberries, for example.

Exercise Factors
Okinawan elders have lifelong routines of moderate exercise and physical activity. They walk most places they go, and keep up daily tasks such as housework, gardening and working well past the age of “retirement” in North America. Many also practice the soft martial art of Tai chi and traditional dance.

Stress and Lifestyle
The remarkable life spans and health in Okinawa can be further explained by the extent to which their lives are low-stress, socially rich, purposeful and spiritual. Most practice a spirituality that combines the nature-revering aspects of Taoism, the communal respect emphasized by Confucianism and a native belief that celebrates women as connectors between present and past and also reveres elders. To apply these principles to your own life, simply slow down, take a breath and become more involved with family, community and religion or spirituality.

A Westernized Approach
Adopting the Okinawan lifestyle is a way of approaching aging as a rich and meaningful part of life. Each element—eating in a healthful way, maintaining social ties, remaining active—supports and reinforces the others. The best lesson we can learn from the elders of Okinawa is to embrace and celebrate aging and approach it with a sense of balance and reverence.

To learn more about The Okinawa Centenarian Study, visit

Margalit Tocher is the President of Home Care Assistance of Greater Chicago in Kenilworth, whose compassionate caregivers, trained in the Okinawan lifestyle, help seniors remain safely in their homes and enjoy a high quality of life. For more information, call 847-853-7777, email : [email protected] or visit or