According to a 2012 list by the World Health Organization, Japan has the longest life expectancy in the world. Men live to an average age of 85 and women to 87. For comparison, American men live to an average age of 77 and women to 82.
Those who live on the island of Okinawa are said to live particularly long lives, even for Japan. Plus, their elderly enjoy healthier lives, often free from disabilities. They have 1/5th the heart disease of Americans, 1/4th the prevalence of breast and prostate cancer, and 1/3rd less dementia. Why? There seem to be two major advantages to the Okinawan lifestyle.
Ikigai is a Japanese word that roughly translates to “that which makes one’s life worth living.” Basically, it’s a sense of purpose. And it can help fight off the stress and hypertension which ages so many of us.
Okinawans have a particularly strong ikigai. Families live together and neighbors keep close ties, forming a “mutual support network that provides financial, emotional, and social help throughout life.” According to 103 year old Ushi Okushima her ikigai are her elderly friends Setsuko and Matsu who have all been together since World War II.
Okinawans eat a healthy, low calorie diet. A typical meal might be vegetables, tofu, miso soup, and a little bit of fish or other meat. Such a meal would not only have fewer calories than a typical American meal, it would likely have more nutrients as well.
This lean diet dates back to World War II and before, when food was scarce. The elderly in Okinawa simply never learned to overindulge. It’s also inspired by the Confucian adage “eat until your stomach is 80% full.”