No one wants to be old in America, where people try to hide their age so as not to be thought doddering or hopelessly out of date. In my three visits to the Japanese island of Okinawa, I have seen a far healthier model of aging. There older people are cherished, celebrated, and deeply involved in life. As a result, even those over 80—what geriatricians call “the oldest old”—tend to be youthful looking, physically and socially active, and intellectually lively.
You may have read about these elders in the best-selling book The Okinawa Program(Three Rivers Press, 2002), written by the lead investigators in the long-running Okinawa Centenarian Study (brothers Bradley Willcox, MD, and D. Craig Willcox, PhD, as well as Makoto Suzuki, MD). Okinawans are the world’s healthiest and longest-lived people: They have the lowest rates of heart disease, stroke, and cancer in the world, and the highest percentage of people living over 100. The residents of this mostly rural island not only live longer, but they generally stay healthy and active until death.
What most struck me about older people in Okinawa was their pride and joy in their age. Folks would just bound up to me and introduce themselves by name and age—something that certainly doesn’t happen here! And I was always surprised by their ages, because most of them looked so much younger.
The Okinawan secret to staying young is not simple, of course, but rather a complex blend of habits, attitude, and culture. Here are seven lessons from Okinawa that might help us all find more joy in our own ripening into old age:
1. Take pride in your status as an elder.
In rural Okinawa, old age is an accomplishment, not a catastrophe. Elders hold a vital place in the continuum between past and future generations. Key birthdays from age 73 to 100 are marked with special celebrations where elders touch younger family and friends to symbolically pass on their good lives and good health. The one for the 97th birthday marks the official beginning of second childhood and end of responsibility.
2. Stay active.
There is no Okinawan word for “retirement.” Older people continue to work, garden, and pursue their interests with passion and purpose. I was surprised by the leanness and agility of people in their 80s and older. This maintenance of strength and physical ability means that even those over 100 usually live independently. So don’t put off trying something new because of age—you’re never too old.
3. Help each other.
Okinawan village life is built on the principle of yuimaru, or mutual assistance. People watch out for and help their neighbors as a matter of course, knowing that helping hands will be there for them when needed. The strong social fabric is also seen in the moais, groups of friends, neighbors, or workmates who meet regularly—sometimes over decades—to provide social and financial support for one another. Everyone chips a small sum into a pot at each meeting, and whoever needs it most at the time takes it home.