Current DateSeptember 28, 2021

The secret to growing old healthily… the Japanese way

Every year we wish it to each other: that we can all live happily ever after! But what is the secret to growing old happy?

There are a number of places on the globe where life expectancy is much higher than in regions with a similar standard of living. Okinawa in Japan is one of them and also in Costa Rica, Sardinia, Greece and in California there are a number of areas where you are no exception if you manage to get past 100. 

These areas are called ‘blue zones’ because they were initially colored blue on the world map. What these inhabitants have as the largest common denominator is a healthy and active lifestyle with a pure diet and a lot of exercise. However, these people do not spend a fortune on fitness or personal coaches, the activities they do are mainly functional (such as intensive dancing or gardening) AND happens outdoors. Their diet is upholstered by what mother nature has to offer them: crisp products that are not processed with all kinds of flavors and preservatives, and that are not crammed with sugars or unhealthy fats.

Another common feature of the blue zoners is that they have little stress and maintain an active social life: no busy agenda that determines their lives, no deadlines they have to meet. They stay active until old age and have very close contact with their family and friends.

The Japanese lifestyle

As of 2021, apart from the Okinawa region, Japan as a country as a whole has the second highest life expectancy worldwide, behind only Hong Kong, which has a much smaller population. For comparison, in 2021, the average life expectancy in the United States is 79.11 years (81.65 for women and 76.61 for men), in Japan it is 85.03 years (88.09 for women and 81.91 for men) according to WorldMeters. What is their secret? We have taken a closer look at a number of key factors of the Japanese lifestyle to see what life lessons and health tips we can distill from them.

1.   Natural and healthy food

In Japan, there is a strong belief in the link between food and health. Important ingredients in Japanese cuisine are (raw) fish, tofu (a protein-rich product based on soy), seaweed, vegetables, noodles, rice, broths, (green) tea and all kinds of fermented products such as natto, miso and soy sauce. The Japanese eat no bread, little meat and almost no dairy. Vegetables, soup, rice and green tea are already on the menu from breakfast. Their culinary tradition is based on fresh and natural products that are not refined and that are prepared with a small amount of healthy fats. Sumo wrestlers aside, there are also few obese people in Japan. Japan has the lowest rate of obesity in the developed world 4.30 %, according to recent figures. Fast food chains that color the street scene in our cities have not found a place in Japan.

Moreover, the Japanese do not stuff themselves. They eat smaller portions according to the principle of the Hara hachi bu, which postulates that people should eat until they are 80% full.

2.   Relaxation, peaceful mind, and resilience

The Japanese are masters of Zen, among other things, in their gardens. Scientific research shows that the seemingly simple Zen gardens in Japan – which are formed by a pattern of stones, moss and water – bring peace to the mind.

There two possible explanations for this:

  • The patterns correspond to a natural tree structure that is recognizable to our brain
  • The distances between the mutual elements are determined according to a mathematical formula that creates a sense of harmony. So, it is much more than a random accumulation of a number of stones.

The Japanese are known to be hard-working workers and to knock on a lot of stressful, long working days. Unwinding using all kinds of techniques (such as Shiatsu, a manual body therapy in which massage plays a major role), philosophical ideas or meditations are also ingrained in their culture. Even within working hours, time is now being made available in certain companies for an indoor workout to de-stress. At one of the largest employment agencies in Japan, there is even an indoor animal farm that you can visit to change your mind!

Japanese people also find it important to relax, to make time for themselves and to learn to view life in a positive way. In addition, they sometimes do crazy things like getting wrapped up like a fetus in the womb (Otonamaki) to relax and become more agile or cry on the shoulder of a companion for a fee! However, it should also be noted that suicide is still the leading cause of death among Japanese young people, which is partly explained by the pressure to perform.

otonamaki 2

If you are looking for a new technique anti-stress, perhaps the Otonamaki is for you. It is a technique that seeks peace of mind by recreating a supposedly reassuring space: the womb.

To achieve a state of harmony, practitioners of Otonamaki are wrapped in a fetal position with a large cloth. For 20 minutes, the patient remains in the fetal position on a mat facing upwards – often closing their eyes to avoid stimuli. In most cases, the body is fully covered up to the head (except in children).

3.   Giving meaning to life

The Japanese remain active in working life for as long as possible. According to them, this is the ideal way to stay healthy and vital. It is therefore not exceptional that three and even four generations are working at the same time in a family business. Even after their professional career or retirement, the Japanese make themselves useful by volunteering. Or they join a kind of service center where they do chores and do small care tasks in exchange for domestic help and free courses.

Japanese people are also convinced that everyone has a talent and a passion that makes life meaningful and valuable (Ikigai) and that you should try to valorize it for as long as possible.

4.   Elderly care is an important issue

Elderly people who can no longer maintain an active lifestyle or with limited mobility stay at home in the family environment for as long as possible. There is a 24-hour system of home help and care that is controlled from the care centers and nursing homes, working very closely with the family.

Healthy eating remains an important issue in the care of the elderly in Japan: those who have swallowing problems get the familiar food processed into purees and jelly to keep the taste experience intact for as long as possible.

Furthermore, if you are admitted to a retirement home, you only pay 10% of the invoice (about 80 dollars per month), the rest is coughed up by the insurance institution. In addition to public infrastructure, there is also a network of private cooperative communities of which both the elderly and young can become members. They pay a fee and help each other.

Those who are still able to do so can therefore earn a penny in exchange for a form of service: preparing meals and watching a house, looking after children, medical check or care of the elderly, walking the dog or maintaining the garden of elderly people who are no longer able to walk properly.

In Japan, there are even supermarkets that are specially tailored to seniors. There, extra attention is paid to the positioning of the goods in the store shelves (at a height that is easily accessible), there is a wide range of (prepackaged) products for singles, sewing lessons are organized and there is sports accommodation for seniors.

Elderly care is a matter for the family but also for society as a whole. Japanese traditionally already have a culture of caring and sharing. At a young age, they form clubs among friends or peers called Moai, promising to look out for each other. This makes more likely for them to grow old healthy together. For example, your Moai friends may buy a puppy if they feel that you are not moving enough. It is a piece of meaning that starts in the youth years and that ensures that mutual trust and involvement arise.

How do we translate that into our western lifestyle?

All well and good, but we live in a different world where mitsuba, gingko and lotus root are not common vegetables and where yuba cannot be found easily on the shelves of the supermarket. So, what are our key factors for a happy and healthy long life? Under what conditions can we turn our country or at least our own living environment into a ‘mini blue zone’?

Despite living in a country like the United States, where our eating habits are quite different to the Japanese, there a few things we can do to improve our health over the long term. With relatively small adjustments, we can already make a lot of gains in the health field, both mentally and physically. Changing stuck behaviors and habits is difficult, that is why it’s important to focus on the things you can change with little effort.

In recent years it has become clear that the health of our gut is very important for our health in general, also for our mental well-being! And even for our cognition. Our gut communicate continuously with our brain. An example of this data exchange with response between gut and brain is diarrhea in food poisoning. Diarrhea is the signal from your brain to your intestines that you ate something wrong. Your intestines respond to that signal by throwing out their entire contents together with the epithelium (the mucous membrane on the intestinal wall where the bacteria are mainly located).

Another example is the effect of bowel transplants. These show that people who suffer from depression or anxiety disorder get better with the transplant of a healthy microbiota. This has been clearly demonstrated by the latest studies.

Healthy eating is therefore not only important to control our weight and to avoid the ‘welfare diseases’ (e.g., diabetes) that are linked to it, it is equally important for the microbiome that resides in our intestines.

1.   Eat for a healthy microbiota

The problem is that our way of eating is no longer in line with our way of life and that is where we have to intervene. We eat too much in general, too large portions and our diet contains too little vegetables, too much meat and too much sugar.

We now eat ten times more sugar than we did at the beginning of the industrial revolution. This is detrimental to our gut bacteria and it causes all kinds of undesirable effects. It is also best to limit fruit to two pieces per day, because there are a lot of sugars in fruits as well.

Foods that are high in fiber, many prebiotic substances, such as chicory, chicory, asparagus, artichoke, leek, onion, garlic, oatmeal helps to grow the good bacteria in our gut to the detriment of the bad ones. It does not matter if they are fresh, frozen, canned, or cooked because the healthy complex sugars contained in these foods are very stable. Of course, it does not help to eat half a kilo of chicory and flush that with sugary soft drinks because then you negate all the positive effects. Green or black tea and fermented products, with or without additional added probiotics, are also recommended.

However, eating healthy does not mean you should never cheat. Up to 20% of your diet can come from the category of ‘unhealthy’ foods because that is part of who we are as a human being.

Thus, the goal is to eat qualitatively: less but better. Buy quality products, avoid processed products as much as possible and prepare your own meals based on pure ingredients. Home cooked meals are often much tastier and cheaper.

Actively interact with your environment even as you get or are older

There are four important elements that pop up in the success story of those blue zones. The first three are obvious, namely healthy eating, a lot of exercise, and sufficient relaxation. The fourth is not so much top of mind, but equally important. It is about the will to make every day worthwhile!

In addition to the medical aspect, ‘meaning to life’ is an indispensable ingredient of the recipe to grow old happy. Loneliness is one of the biggest problems in our society, but you can avoid it by harnessing the strength to get ready for an outing every day (when you need contact) and to continue to actively seek social contact.

2.   Move towards each other

Try to approach your friends and family, in the tradition of the Japanese Moai, in a different way by being more ‘caring’. Paying close attention to each other, especially in a family context and preferably also with friends and acquaintances, is an ideal means of prevention for all kinds of misery. We can do this by showing genuine interest and asking concrete questions when we suspect that something is wrong. In this way, we are each other’s watchdog or alarm bells and can intervene more quickly in the event of a health problem or when someone is not well in their own skin.

For example, show that you really care about someone by asking a question about a worrying symptom (e.g., a persistent cough). Take the time to listen carefully and possibly advise that person to get checked by a doctor.

3.   Make time for balance and music

Staying active for a long time is perhaps the most important factor in the quest for health and vitality in the long term. Ask the Japanese. This, however, does not mean you need to become Level A athlete or to pick up a gym membership. Simple house chores, a walk in the park, or even Yoga can greatly help.

Indeed, yoga is also a good preparation for old age. It aims to create strength, consciousness and harmony in body and soul. It also ensures a better balance and in the long term a good balance is the ideal fall prevention, an important thing as you get older.

By playing music or listening to our favorite music, our blood gets more oxygen. That is because music raises our heart rate and makes us breathe faster. Those who grow up in a musical environment and especially those who play an instrument themselves are better able to pick up new languages and also develop a better learning capacity. An additional advantage of music is that it can have an analgesic effect and that it often makes the lives of Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s patients a little more pleasant.

A recent study also found that people who listen to music while eating end up eating less in total.

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