Barbara Kim Stanton
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
It’s well known that Okinawans tend to live longer than other people. The islands of Okinawa are one of five places identified as “Blue Zones” by author Dan Buettner. These places are home to the world’s longest-lived people and Buettner has written extensively about the lessons the rest of us can learn from the people who live in Blue Zones.
Researchers believe diet, genetics and lifestyle contribute to the long lifespan of Uchinanchu — people of Okinawan ancestry.
Healthy foods like sweet potato, fish, bitter melon, seaweed and soy products like tofu and miso are part of everyday meals.
Genetics is also a factor. People who live in Okinawa have less cancer, heart disease and dementia than in the United States.
But as diets change — as younger Okinawans eat more fast food and those who have moved away eat more meat and fatty foods — lifespans are shorter.
Lifestyle is also part of the picture. Older Okinawans are generally active and social. Many have gardens and spend time outdoors every day, tending to their plants, which provides exercise as well as healthy vegetables. They interact with their neighbors and share stories and food.
In Hawai‘i, we are blessed with weather that is similar to Okinawa, allowing for year-round activity, and the foods available there are widely available here.
In fact, Hawai‘i residents tend to live a couple years longer on average than people who live in other parts of the United States.
Besides diet and exercise, there’s another lesson we can take from Okinawa, something that we at AARP also encourage as part of our Disrupt Aging initiative. It’s that living a good life as we age is not just about living longer. It’s also about living better, more fulfilling lives.
In Okinawa, as in Hawai‘i, seniors are valued. They are respected, admired and listened to. And, taken care of.
Elders are also encouraged to socialize. There’s a sense of community among Uchinanchu, which aids in socialization.
Researchers are starting to realize that those values — community, respect for elders and a sense of purpose — contribute to a long life. Being alone is unhealthy and can take years off your life. The negative health effect of being alone is the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Being part of a community gives people a sense of purpose. People who don’t have that sense of purpose — a reason to live — die sooner than those who have a purpose in life. Statistics show it can actually add seven years to your life.
So this Labor Day weekend, when it’s time for the annual Okinawan Festival, go out to Kapi‘olani Park and take an older friend who doesn’t socialize much with you. Eat a lot of vegetables and Okinawan sweet potato, and get up and dance kachashi to the lively tunes. Have a good time and look forward to going next year or even volunteering to help with the festival so you can meet other people and contribute to your community. It’s not only fun. It may add years to your life.
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Barbara Kim Stanton has been the state director of AARP Hawaii since 2005. She writes about living a life of real possibilities, where age is not a limit and experience equals wisdom.