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Cultural Perspectives on Aging

By: Neil Adler, Freelance writer for INSIGHTEC
September 4, 2020

Living better, living longer

Across the globe there are many cultural perspectives on how to, as Spock might say, live long and prosper. Two cultures that have been able to show longevity are the people of Okinawa, Japan and Sardinia, Italy. The inhabitants of these two areas have the highest rate of centenarians in the world (22 centenarians/100,000 inhabitants). These are locations referred to as Blue Zones­–a demographic and/or geographic area in the world with an oversize concentration of centenarians and supercentenarians. [1]

 

Okinawa, Japan

Okinawa is known as the “Island of Immortals.” The statistics are quite impressive. Seniors are 80% less likely compared to westerners to have coronary heart disease, or breast or prostate cancer. Inhabitants have the lowest rates in the world for the leading causes of death: heart disease, stroke and cancer. Furthermore, there are low instances of other diseases such as Alzheimer’s. [2]

Researchers believe genetics are only part of the picture. It’s also the lifestyle on the island that is thought to make a difference. Hippocrates said that “Food is medicine”, and this could explain the health and longevity that exists on this island.

Look no further than the daily intake of fresh and raw foods to influence longevity. Their 96% plant-based diet consists of tofu, a cucumber called bitter melon, sweet potatoes, seafood, and seaweed. Beyond what they eat, their meal portions are relatively small, which is represented by the Okinawan expression “hara hachi bu”; which means, “Eat until you are 8/10ths full”. [2]

Okinawans believe that their environment is also a contributing factor to their longevity. There are few large factories and vehicles, so pollution is kept at a minimum leading to excellent air quality. The warm climate allows people to enjoy outdoor exercise and activities year-round. Seniors work in the fields daily, and retirement is rare (there is no word for “retirement” in the local dialect). [3].

According to 2014 estimates published in the “Japan Statistical Yearbook” by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication, Statistics Bureau, 33.0% of the Japanese population is above the age of 60. The Japanese culture values elders, and many older Japanese continue to live full lives. There is even a national holiday called Respect for the Aged Day. The Japanese also see a person’s 60th birthday as a celebration, called Kanreki. [4] Kan means “return or cycle” and Reki depicts “calendar”. It is said to be a celebration of being reborn or being a child again. [5]

 

Sardinia, Italy

Sardinia is a large Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea. An interesting fact about people from the Sardinia region is the number of elderly men. In most western countries, the ratio of men to women is 1-to-4 at the age of 100.In this area, it’s 1-to-1. There is the same proportion of men to women at an advanced age. [6]

Researchers have looked at genetics to better understand this anomaly. However, it is believed that genetic factors explain only 20-25% of the average lifespan. [6] As with the inhabitants of Okinawa, diet plays a part. Moreover, data suggests that social and psychological factors are just as important.

Sardinians believe family has a critical role in the potential to live a long life. Feeling important as the head of a family helps to keep seniors active and gives them strength. Ultimately, these contribute to keeping seniors from feeling lonely.

In villages in Sardinia older people live and are cared for by their families at home. Relatives and neighbors look after the elderly, making the home a place for everyday interaction between the generations. Seniors are not seen as a burden, but as elders who pass on values and local knowledge to the next generation. [6] Some data suggests that seniors living in the family home can increase their life expectancy by more than 15 years as compared to seniors living in retirement homes. [3]

In addition to the central role they hold in the household, older people maintain social networks in the community by organizing and taking part in local events. Celebrations and sporting events in the main square of villages provide occasions for locals – including older people – to gather. They also may meet in the square to have a chat, enjoy a game of cards and socialize. [6]

By staying integrated in the social life of the village, seniors maintain their participation in the community, and this can help to keep their minds sharp.

 

The answer to longevity

Scientists believe that in the search to understand longevity, there is no single explanation. However, insights gleaned from Okinawa and Sardinia point to the importance of diet, exercise, environment, lifestyle, and (perhaps most importantly) socialization. Each individual can choose to apply these insights to their own life.

This article is a part of a series on cultural perspectives on aging. The next article will discuss challenges that exist in some cultures that may inhibit longevity.

 

References

  1. Sardinia: Life Expectancy. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sardinia#Life_expectancy. Accessed August 16, 2020.
  2. On This Tiny Island of Japan, People Live To 100+. Here’s How. https://www.buzzworthy.com/okinawans-live-until-100/. Accessed August 16, 2020.
  3. Buettner, Dan. The Blue Zones Kitchen: 100 Recipes to Live to 100. National Geographic; 1 edition (December 3, 2019).
  4. TED blog. What It’s Like to Grow Old, in Different Parts of the World. https://blog.ted.com/what-its-like-to-grow-old-in-different-parts-of-the-world/. Accessed August 16, 2020.
  5. Kanreki: Japan’s way of celebrating their sixtieth birthday. http://yabai.com/p/4296
  6. The centenarians dominating one region of Sardinia. https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/06/health/sardinia-centenarian-village-tiana/index.html. Accessed August 16, 2020.
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