The Blue Zones: A Recipe for Brain Health and Longevity, Part 5: Okinawa, Japan
In part 5 of this article series, we travel to the Blue Zone region of Okinawa, Japan, to learn how they incorporate lifestyle factors like diet, stress reduction, sense of purpose and connection, and physical activity into their daily lives. We also take a look at how we all can enjoy longer, happier lives (and better brain health) by taking cues from their lifestyle and applying it to our own.
This Pacific archipelago lies off the southern tip of Japan, with Okinawa Island being the largest of the group. Here, among palm trees and sandy beaches, is where one of the world’s longest-lived populations resides, including the world’s longest-lived women. Okinawans enjoy more healthy years and one of the highest concentrations of centenarians in the world. Their rates of chronic disease are lower than the U.S., with one fifth the rate of cardiovascular disease, a quarter of the rate of breast and prostate cancer, and one third the rate of dementia.1 Here, the focus is on prevention of disease before treatment.
Living in a tropical climate affords Okinawans the opportunity to grow vegetables in their gardens year-round. Before each meal, Okinawans take a moment to say hara hachi bu, which means to eat until you’re 80 percent full. Traditionally, they only eat meat during ceremonial occasions, like the lunar New Year. With unpredictable growing seasons on these islands due to typhoons, a large proportion of calories traditionally came from sweet potatoes – a hearty tuber that can withstand the six or so typhoons that hit the island each year. Though it no longer makes up such a large portion of the diet, long-lived Okinawans enjoy a simple diet made of garden vegetables, some tofu, miso soup, some fish and occasional meat. Tofu is an important source of protein and energy here. The anti-inflammatory nature of the diet is protective of overall health, and importantly neurological health.
The formation of a moai, a committed group of life-long friends, is an important aspect of stress reduction on Okinawa. From youth to old age, this deep social support provides a safety net throughout life, both emotionally and financially. Meeting daily, the moai provides a place to shed stress by providing support for others while also receiving support. Reducing stress reduces inflammation, leading to reduced risk of chronic diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.2
Sense of Purpose and Connection
Centenarians on Okinawa maintain a sense of purpose well into old age. This sense of purpose is called ikigai, and is found at the intersection of what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs and what you can get paid for. The moai also provide a consistent source of connection, respect, and support throughout life. Unlike in America where age is less valued, in Okinawa, ageing is valued in the context of family and community.
Most Okinawans grow food in their garden, which provides a daily source of physical activity. Along with the wide range of motion, working in the garden is a stress reliever too. Okinawans traditionally have little furniture, sitting and standing from the floor multiple times per day. They use tatami mats on the floor for seating. This builds and maintains lower body strength as well as balance, important in reducing the risk of falls as they age.
Take a Cue from Okinawans
Like many other Blue Zones, Okinawans grow much of their own simple, plant-based meals in their gardens. The antioxidant rich meals reduce inflammation and therefore risk of neurodegenerative diseases. Beyond providing foods filled with nutrients and antioxidants, gardening provides a good source of physical activity and an opportunity to relieve stress. Here, age is valued as a source of wisdom, and the moai formed early in childhood provide a consistent safety net throughout life. This provides Okinawans with their ikigai, an important lifestyle ingredient for longevity.
- Buettner, D.The Blue Zones: 9 lessons for living longer from the people who’ve lived the longest. (National Geographic Society, 2012).
- Justice, N. J. The relationship between stress and Alzheimer’s disease.Neurobiol. Stress 8, 127 (2018).