The secrets of longevity – Part 1

July 7, 2008

I imagine that you, like me, want to live as long as possible – but, I want to have a healthy, active life too. How to achieve that has been the subject of much research and debate, and I have found evidence of three different communities who seem to have achieved this. People on the remote Japanese island of Okinawa, in the small Sardinian mountain town of Ovodda and at Loma Linda in the USA live longer in these three places than anywhere else on earth.

At an age when the average Briton is predicted to die (77 years for men and 81 for women) – inhabitants of these three places are looking forward to many more years of good health. Often they’re still working in jobs as demanding as heart surgery.

Their reasons are not all the same, so I thought I would share their secrets with you over the next three weeks.

Let’s start with the Japanese island of Okinawa. With a population of one million, they have 900 centenarians, four times higher than the average in Britain or America. Even more remarkably, the region of Ovodda is the only place in the world where as many men as women live to be 100 years of age, which goes against the global trend of women outliving men.

There is one remarkable scientific fact that sets Okinawans apart from the rest of us, they actually age more slowly than almost anyone else on earth.

“The calendar may say they’re 70 but their body says they’re 50,” says Bradley Willcox, a scientist who is researching the extraordinary phenomenon. “The most impressive part of it is that a good lot of them are healthy until the very end.”

Finding the cause of their exceptional longevity is not simple but the spotlight has fallen on one hormone – DHEA. It’s a precursor of both oestrogen and testosterone and produced in the adrenal glands. While scientists don’t know what it does, they do know that the hormone decreases with age and levels decline at a much slower rate among the Okinawans.

Explanations for this seem most likely to be found in their diet as they not only eat more tofu and soya products than any other population in the world, but have what scientists refer to it as a rainbow diet. That is one that also includes a wide range of different vegetables and fruit, all rich in anti-oxidants.

That sounds familiar enough, but it’s what they don’t eat that may be at the heart of their exceptionally long lives.

The Okinawan’s most significant cultural tradition is known as hara hachi bu, which translated means eat until you’re only 80% full. In a typical day they only consume around 1,200 calories, about 20% less than most people in the UK. The ‘all you can eat’ buffet is not something that would appear in Okinawa, and this voluntary calorie restriction is not fully understood by scientists call it caloric restriction, but they think it works by sending a signal to the body that there is going to be a impending famine, sending it into a more protective, self-preservation mode.

“It’s this ability to trick their bodies into starvation that may be keeping Okinawans physiologically so young. It’s a stark contrast with the cultural habits that drive food consumption in other parts of the world,” says Mr Willcox – and he has studied them long enough, so he should know.

So, if you want to live longer, eat less. Start with smaller portions on a smaller plate, your body will thank you for it. If your family have expectations of an early pay out from your will, then they may of course not be quite so pleased!


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