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"How to be Healthy at 80's, like an Okinawan"

by Jomel Bajar,PT,DPT,MS

Globally, an estimated 10 million people died from cancer last year, 18 million people died from cardiovascular disease,  400 million people have diabetes and more than 300 million people have depression with suicide becoming a major killer especially in our young people. 

Okinawa, Japan is considered as one of the 5 places called Blue Zone, where people live the longest and healthiest lives.  As compared to global life expectancy that averages out to 71.4 years, Okinawan women average life expectancy is 87 and men at 81 years old.   They have 80% less cardiovascular disease, 75% less breast and prostate cancer, and 66% less dementia as compared to the world. 

Learning about Okinawans longevity culture, one can notice the abundance of seafood in their diet.  While seafood is an integral part of the Okinawan diet, many of the locals also grow a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables.   Goya, also known as “bitter melon” or “bitter gourd” in English, is the cucumber-shaped vegetable found in many Japanese supermarket.  Goya is very bitter and often an acquired taste that you may love it or hate it. Regardless of the bitterness, this Okinawan classic juice offers many health benefits. In addition, caloric restriction diet by Okinawans is still being investigated in literature.  Seaweed is a noninvasive crop found in the ocean that is very much high in nutrition, reduces inflammation, slow down aging process, reduces cholesterol and promote caloric restriction.  Although not confirmed in humans; animal caloric restriction increases their longevity, improve their healthy aging, and reduce the risk for age-associated diseases.  Many people in different countries are nutritionally deprived, but they are not calorically deprived – “too many calories but not enough nutrients”.   

Aside from their diet, Okinawans prioritize belongingness and happiness in their lives.  A regular scheduled meeting with friends to meet for a common purpose is a common practice.  They can gossip, talk about life, their experiences, or even ask for financial support and emotional advice.   These social support network circles are called, “moai”. This word originally started in Japan hundreds of years ago as a means for someone to acquire financial support when needed. This term is now associated to become more of a social support network, a cultural tradition for built-in companionship.  During the olden time, children of about five individuals were paired together and it is then that they made a commitment to each other for life.

A 75-year study from Harvard University showed the one key to health and happiness is having someone else in your life who loves and cares for you and who you love and care.   The best drug on the planet is a thing called happiness that has nothing to do with pills or modern medicines.   Study shows that when we are happy and in love, we are releasing 4 happy chemicals.  The first one is serotonin, which is the mood chemical.  Therefore, when you look outside the window at the sunshine it is s a lovely day and you feel good that is because serotonin levels are normal.   Dopamine is the second one that releases when you do anything that is pleasurable whether it be a nice conversation, or a lovely meal in a beautiful restaurant with your family.   The third one is oxytocin, which is the love chemicals that you release when that wonderful feeling of bonding with someone is being experienced.  The last one is endorphins, which is a natural opiate that helps us deal with physical pains.  These four happy chemicals that are being released into our bloodstream give us optimal function of not only to our brain but to the rest of the body as well.   Study shows that there is a 50% less risk of dying early if we have strong links to our family and friends.  On the other hand, social isolation and withdrawal from people are worse for our longevity compared to smoking, obesity, and substance abuse.   It turns out that that feeling of being accepted by our group is what gives us the key to a long and healthy happy life.

With the advent of social media, majority of people become very ego driven to post something about themselves.   By doing so, we are losing the real idea of actual proper connection.  We rarely experience looking someone in the eyes, or giving a hug, and even laughing together in one space.  Studies shows that we do not get the same benefits from a text message than we would get from talking to someone on the phone or seeing them face to face. If you are using social media to give you a sense of belongingness, then it is not going to give you what you need.  

If happiness and belongingness are the most important pieces in real longevity, then we need to really put some focus on it.  The keyword is “together” when it comes to slowing the aging process.  Maybe, we can start integrating our children's parties with our teenager’s parties, or even adults socializing with younger generations.  Most grandparents today cannot last five minutes with a child.  When older people start interacting with children, you will see that they start talking like children and making facial expressions like children and next thing, you know they are sitting on the floor playing with toys.  Children inject youth into us to the degree that we allow ourselves to meet them at their level.   So, let us learn from the Okinawans --- let us build our social support network, let us build our own “moai”!

Goya: Okinawa’s Superfood That Helps Lower Blood Sugar And More

5 Places Where People Live the Longest and Healthiest Lives


Caloric restriction, the traditional Okinawan diet, and healthy aging: the diet of the world's longest-lived people and its potential impact on morbidity and life span

14 Health Benefits of Seaweed

Moai—This Tradition is Why Okinawan People Live Longer, Better

Meet Your Happy Chemicals

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