On the Island of Centenarians

At the end of her research trip to Japan, Sabina Misoch, Head of the Interdisciplinary Competence Centre of the FHS St.Gallen, visited the island of Okinawa, also known as «The Island of Centenarians». That’s where she met her Japanese research colleague Makoto Suzuki.

Marion Loher

There are only a few regions in the world that are home to an unusually high number of centenarians. The Japanese island of Okinawa is one of them. The cardiologist and gerontologist Makoto Suzuki launched a study into these centenarians over 40 years ago, with the aim of finding out why the people on the island live for so long. His research is still ongoing, making it perhaps the longest scientific investigation ever into the lives of centenarians. At the end of her research trip, Sabina Misoch, Head of the Interdisciplinary Competence Centre (IKOA-FHS), had the opportunity to meet her Japanese research counterpart and talk to him about the findings obtained so far. But it took some time to get there.

How the study came about

«Finding Makoto Suzuki wasn’t easy», says Sabina Misoch upon her return to Switzerland. Nevertheless, she can’t help smiling. «He is already 83 years old. He no longer works at the university but at the Institute for Longevity Research.» Although she knew the address of his office, there were no house numbers or name signs. So she set off looking for him, and knocked (in vain) on many doors until an elderly man appeared from behind a rusty old one. Makoto Suzuki said afterwards that he had wanted to check where she was, as he was starting to get a bit worried. «As soon as I saw him, I knew that must be him», says Sabina Misoch.

The cardiologist Makoto Suzuki went to Okinawa more than 40 years ago to set up a medical faculty there. He noticed that there were a lot of very healthy old people on the island. Someone told him the name of a 100-year-old woman whom he should visit, as she would be able to tell him more about the phenomenon, he recalls. But Makoto Suzuki couldn’t understand the dialect of the islanders very well, nor the name of the woman. So he drove off on his own in search of her. He soon encountered a lady in a field and asked her if she knew the centenarian. She laughed and told him that the person he was looking for was actually her! The doctor was surprised, as she seemed to be no older than 70. And, thus, the study had its first subject.

Those who live healthily, live longer

Ever since it was launched, the study has been determining the health, lifestyles and social circumstances of the people on the island in the form of regular assessments and surveys. 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, says Sabina Misoch. Makoto Suzuki believes that the lifestyle of these people plays an important part in how long they live. «They feel needed and they live alongside other people in a close-knit community, 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. Another important factor is «Hara Hachi Bu»: the philosophy of only eating until you feel 80 percent full.

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. But he also says that centenarians will become extinct eventually. Since American eating habits such as fast food have found their way onto the island, the younger ones have not been eating and living as healthily.

Pictures: Sabina Misoch