The grandparents live past 100, but
after too many burgers, the islands' next generation may not make
it to middle age
BY HIDEKO TAKAYAMA
EVERY MORNING SEIRYU Toguchi rises at 6, washes his face and
exercises in the lush front yard of his home in Okinawa. He
prepares a breakfast of rice and miso soup with spinach and egg.
Then he tends his nearby farm, where he grows carrots, cabbage and
other vegetables. At 5 p.m., he takes a hot bath and cooks
homegrown radish with pork for supper. His wife died a few years
ago and his children live in other cities, but he is
self-sufficient. He reads newspapers and magazines, does his own
laundry and sewing, and when he gets cravings for traditional
brown-sugar doughnuts, he takes a bus to the nearest town to buy
them. It's nothing out of the ordinary -- until you consider that
Toguchi is nearly 102 years old.
Lean and fit, Toguchi jokes that the key to his long
life is a special drink he takes before bed: a mixture of garlic,
honey, turmeric and aloe poured into awamori, the local distilled
liquor. His sharp mind and high energy may be rare among the
elderly in other parts of the world, but he is not so unusual in
Okinawa, the southern group of islands located between Japan's main
islands and Taiwan. Tbguchi is one of about 600 centenarians out of
a population of 1.3 million. Indeed, Okinawa has the highest
proportion of centenarians in the world: 39.5 for every 100,000
people, compared with about 10 in 100,000 Americans.
What's their secret? In 2001, three specialists published a
study of the locals' longevity in a book called "The Okinawa
Program," which reached American best-seller lists. The
authors-Okinawa International University gerontologist Makoto
Suzuki, Bradley J. Willcox, a former geriatrics fellow at Harvard
Medical School, and his twin brother, D. Craig Willcox, a medical
anthropologist-found that elderly Okinawans had remarkably clean
arteries and low cholesterol. Heart disease, breast cancer and
prostate cancer were rare, which they attributed to the consumption
of locally grown vegetables and huge quantities of tofu and
seaweed, rigorous activity and a low-stress lifestyle. Suzuki and
the Willcox brothers also determined that Okinawans have no genetic
predisposition to longevity: when they grow up in other countries,
they take on the same arterial disease risk as those in their new
home. The authors claim that if Americans lived more like the
Okinawans, "80 percent of the nation's coronary care units,
one-third of the cancer wards, and a lot of the nursing homes would
be shut down."
But increasingly, Okinawans are living more like Americans. That
means less bean curd and walking, more burgers and stress. The
islands' children aren't expected to live nearly as long as their
grandparents. Heart disease, cerebral hemorrhage and lung cancer
are all on the rise. Okinawan women now face a higher than average
risk of uterine cancer, and mortality rates are climbing. No one is
more concerned than Suzuki. "Most Okinawans like to think that they
will live longe simply because the islands have been known for it,"
he says. "They should learn the reasons for the famous longevity
and act now to restore their health before it is too late."
Experts blame the islands' dramatic history for the current
health crisis. Okinawa, formerly the Kingdom of the Ryukyus, had
its own culture, foods and language until it was forcibly
assimilated into Japan in the late 1800s. Still, the islands were
so far from the central government that the people continued to
depend on local salt, sugar, vegetables, fish, fruit and pork.
Later, though, Okinawa became one of World War II's bloodiest
battlefields. Even after the Allied occupation ended in 1952, the
islands remained under U.S. control for 20 more years -- long enough
for residents to develop a taste for American food. Only recently
did Okinawans begin to recognize how the changes in diet and
lifestyle were endangering their health.
Now doctors and government officials are urging Okinawans to
return to their roots. The prefectural government has launched
"Healthy Okinawa 2010," aimed at strengthening health education.
Next month Suzuki and his team will hold courses offering
instruction in the classic Okinawan lifestyle, complete with
morning walks, traditional dance lessons and cooking classes. On
Jan. 1, the daily Ryukyu Shimpo began a series of articles on
longevity. "We want to give a serious warning to our people," says
Editor in Chief Takenori Miyara. "We will cover every area
concerning our health situation, from history to culture, and from
produce to what measures we should take."
One approach is to target the islands' schoolchildren. At Johoku
Junior High School in Naha, the lunches often include local dishes:
stir-fried papaya with carrots, rice with wakame (soft seaweed) and
tonjiru (soup with pork and vegetables). Many kids said that they
learned about Okinawa's longevity on TV. "I like Big Macs, but I
would rather eat more Okinawan food to stay healthy and live long,"
says Masatsugu Uemura, 15. Yayoko Ishikawa, the principal of the
junior high school, says that Okinawans believed for decades that
their lifestyle was scorned by the rest of Japan. "It has taken
such a long time to realize what we had was a treasure for
longevity," Ishikawa says. "We should start teaching our children
about traditional foods and how the people lived." After all, few
people know how to age well better than Okinawa's old folks.