Longevity with vitality: Japanese elders provide examples for healthy aging

Ogimi in Okinawa, Japan has the highest percentage of centenarians in the world, making it a curiosity for those eager to learn more about the secrets of aging.

By Bryan D. Hoben | Jul 10, 2014

On a sweltering summer day in 2013, wrapped in ceremonial blue, gold, and red kimonos, Tomi Miagi smiles as the crowd packed into the Shioya district’s tiny town hall erupts in thunderous applause. Tomi had recently turned 97 and in Ogimi village on the Japanese island of Okinawa, this is cause for a special celebration.

The seaside town is famous for the longevity of its citizens, with the highest percentage of centenarians anywhere in the world, according to data from the World Health Organization and a regional census.

Such celebrations of long life will become increasingly commonplace around the world in the coming decades. With people living longer than ever before, the number of centenarians worldwide will increase ten-fold between 2009 and 2050 to 4.1 million people, estimates the United Nations. And the number of people over the age of 60 will also grow dramatically, reaching 2 billion by 2050.

Changing healthcare needs

The growing population of elderly is causing a significant shift in healthcare needs. People’s bodies become more frail as they age, as muscles and bones weaken and the senses falter. Older people are also more likely to develop chronic illnesses such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

Novartis is working on novel ways to address some of the illnesses related to old age. For instance, Novartis researchers are testing experimental medicines to unlock the body’s ability to regenerate lost hearing and weakened muscles. Work is also underway on new approaches to stem age-related vision loss.

The unusual longevity of the citizens in places like Ogimi is a curiosity for a world keen to learn more about the secrets of graceful aging. The healthy traditional Okinawan diet, with moderate amounts of low-calorie and nutrient-rich foods like sweet potatoes, fish, seaweed, a local bitter melon called Goya, and soy products, may play a role.

And the relative isolation of the small coastal districts that make up Ogimi fosters particularly active family and social lives. Residents are quick to point out that the island’s slower pace makes this kind of interaction possible and insist it’s a vital contributor to their longevity.

Birthday celebrations

In Ogimi every August, each of the 17 tiny districts that make up the village host official birthday ceremonies for their renowned elderly residents. While Ogimi’s elderly are considered to have begun their “second life” or “rebirth” upon their 60th birthday, the biggest celebration is reserved for one’s 97th birthday, their “kajimaya.”

The younger people here are getting ill and dying more often and it’s because of the fast food diet.

Dr. Tamiko Fukuyama, healthcare practitioner in Ogimi

Many Okinawans believe that, having traveled through so many cycles of life and amassed so much knowledge and wisdom along the way, a 97-year-old has begun a return to a state of childlike innocence. In the cyclical spirit of this journey, kajimaya celebrants are given colorful pinwheels and encouraged to sing and dance—but only after a heartfelt congratulatory speech from Ogimi’s mayor and a few words of praise from all but the shyest attendees.

Despite the global trend towards longer life, some worry that the pressures and influences of modern life are not conducive to a healthier existence.

Keep active, keep well

Meanwhile, social clubs, exercise classes, gateball (akin to croquet) leagues, family gatherings, and numerous village festivals fill the calendars of Ogimi’s elderly, but nowhere is their striking vitality better displayed than when they’re working.

Farmer Shimpuku Tamaki celebrated his kajimaya last year yet still tends four different fields of shikuwasa (a local citrus fruit) every day by himself. He isn’t sure why the people of Ogimi typically live longer than anyone else on Earth, but doesn’t count food as a factor. “I’m just living my life,” he says. “I have no special diet, I eat everything.” Then, after thinking a moment, he smiles and adds, “I suppose it’s just a gift from the gods that I have lived this long.”

Kakusei Yamashiro, an octopus fisherman who spends nearly eight hours every day free diving with a spear gun, acknowledges his healthy and simple diet plays a role, but insists daily physical activity is vital, vowing to remain active as long as he can.

“It’s been my dream to [dive] until I was at least 85, but once I made it to 85, I set a new goal: 88.” he says. “Maybe it will be 90. Who knows?”