In search of the secret to a longer life

During her research trip to Japan, Sabina Misoch, Head of the Interdisciplinary Competence Centre for Ageing (IKOA) at the FHS St.Gallen, visited the village of Ogimi on the island of Okinawa – home to more centenarians than anywhere else in the world.

Marion Loher

Ogimi is a small village in the north of Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture. It is a special place, as it is home to an unusually large number of very old people. In fact, most of the world’s centenarians live here. Sabina Misoch, Head of the Interdisciplinary Competence Centre (IKOA-FHS), visited the village on her three-week research trip to Japan. Of the approximately 3,300 inhabitants of Ogimi, around 510 live in the village of Shioya; 41 of them are aged 70 and over, 61 are aged 80 and over, 35 are aged 90 and over, and five are older than 100. Sabina Misoch met up with some of these elderly people to find out more about the secret to their long lives.

Insight into the lives of two very old people

«Once a week, a health check is carried out in the morning in the community centre», reports Sabina Misoch via Skype. «Anyone over the age of 65 can come along to have their blood pressure or temperature taken by the community nurses and to talk about medical symptoms or other problems.» If any of the readings are abnormal, the doctor is informed. But the weekly health check is more than just a health assessment – here in Shioya, it feels almost like a social event. Over a period of two hours, there is gymnastics, dancing and a lot of chatting. The elderly people are given useful information, while a nursery group sings songs to them. «The community here takes a lot of responsibility for older people, which I think is great», says Sabina Misoch.

After the health check, the gerontologist had the opportunity to talk to two very old ladies – one aged 100 and the other 93. Since neither of them spoke Japanese or English – only the special Japanese dialect of Okinawa – the conversation was translated by an interpreter. «I was particularly interested in how the two women are integrated into local society, where they get their energy from, and what their purpose in life is», says Sabina Misoch.

Both of the old ladies have a similar daily routine. Working in the garden and the fields, praying and talking to deceased loved ones, and eating fresh, healthy food for lunch and dinner are things that are very important to them. Differences can be seen in how they interact socially. «Whereas the 100-year-old lady often spends her afternoons alone because her son lives far away and many of her friends are no longer alive, the 93-year-old has a lot of contact with her family because she has 10 children, 23 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren», says the gerontologist.

She was impressed by how physically and mentally fit the two old ladies were, and with how much energy they live their lives. «The 93-year-old lady still cooks for the whole family whenever they celebrate a big occasion together.» She draws her energy from interacting with others, singing karaoke, drinking lots of coffee and helping people. The 100-year-old lady said that her vegetable and fruit garden and her conversations with departed loved ones are important to her, but the main thing is enjoying the here and now. «Despite poverty, time is more important to them than money», says an impressed Sabina Misoch, before adding: «The people here don’t get lonely, because there is a very strong sense of togetherness in the village and everyone looks out for each other. Helping your neighbour is a matter of course. The elderly people who live here are very well integrated and an indispensable part of the community.»

Here last year

Sabina Misoch first visited the island of Okinawa – also called the «The Island of Centenarians» – on last year’s research trip to Japan. One of the people she met that time round was the Japanese cardiologist and gerontologist Makoto Suzuki. Over 40 years ago, he had launched a study into centenarians on the island to find out why the people there live for so long.

Makoto Suzuki and his team carry out regular assessments and surveys on the state of health, lifestyle and social circumstances of the island’s inhabitants. The researchers have collected data for more than a thousand centenarians so far, and have found that the island’s inhabitants don’t just live long but are also very healthy. There are hardly any cases of strokes, heart disease or dementia, although for the latter this appears to be increasing. Makoto Suzuki believes that the lifestyle of these people plays an important part in how long they live. «They feel needed, which gives their life a purpose.» They also eat healthily (not much meat and lots of vegetables), move around a lot in the fresh air, and don’t eat fast food.

Research to date has shown that longevity is up to 75 percent dependent on lifestyle. The Japanese doctor and gerontologist believes this figure might even be as high as 90 percent. The remaining 10 percent is genetically determined.

Pictures: Sabina Misoch