Ageing societies are becoming a global phenomenon. According to data collected by the United Nations, by 2050 the number of persons aged 80 and above is projected to treble to 426 million.
What percentage of people though will be over 80 and in good health, for us to be able to address amongst other things, the impact on society of an ageing population of this size? There is plenty of advice and an awful lot of confusion around what might help us live better lives. Research suggests that how long we might live is dictated by our genes by a mere 10%, so this means that other factors come into play. We’re advised to exercise, eat healthily, stress less and sleep well, but what else might contribute to leading a long and happy life? And not just longevity in age numbers, but vitality as well, adding life to your years as well as years to your life. For good examples of this, our heads should turn towards Japan.
In 2015 Mieko Nagaoka, who only took up swimming at the age of 82 as therapy for her knees, became the first 100 year old to complete a 1,500m freestyle swim. We hear about other examples of octogenarians who would give a lot of us a run for our money, like 83 year old marathon runner Michiharu Shimojo, and Seichi Sana who took up surfing at the age of 80 ‘on a whim’. It’s not just physical resilience either, those of us who shun technology, prepare to be put to shame by 91 year old ‘Insta-gran’ Kimiko Nishimoto who has over 228,000 Instagram followers. A keen photographer, Kimiko’s creativity comes shining through on her Insta page.
Are their extraordinary endeavours down to their competitive characters and creative spirit, or is it something else?
How older people are treated is very much dependent upon which country they live. The Japanese culture hugely respects and celebrates the older generations; the older you are, the more wisdom you have. Is it a coincidence then that they live longer, more vital lives?
Okinawa – Sunshine, Spirituality, and Sweet Potatoes
In Okinawa a province 1000 miles from Tokyo, people enjoy what is possibly the highest life expectancy on the planet and have the oldest living female population with the highest centenarian ratios.
Longevity expert Dan Buettner travelled the world to find and meet the world’s longest lived people in unique communities call Blue Zones, looking for common elements of lifestyle, diet, and outlook. There are no treatments to stop the aging process, given the chances of any of us living to 100 are very low, this suggests there is really nothing we can do to increase our own life expectancy. Japan have the greatest number of disability free years as well as an incredible profile of longevity. They still suffer the usual diseases but at much lower rates than here in the UK.
After spending time with 13 centenarians and their families in Okinawa, Dan Buettner concluded that their vitality and vigour came from having a clear sense of duty and purpose, and this appears to be the significant key to fulfilment and contentment. In Japan they call it Ikigai (pronounced ee-key-guy). This is a wonderful concept that loosely translated means a reason for living, so a reason for waking up in the morning.
According to The Blue Zones book, the Okinawan women succeed in living their long and vital lives by these following common practices:
Embrace an Ikigai – older Okinawans can articulate their roles and responsibilities and why they get up each day. Feeling needed and respected.
They eat wisely. Hara hachi bu is a Confucian teaching that when said before eating each meal reminds them to eat until they are only 80 percent full, dining from smaller plates for portion control is a way of sensible eating to maintain a healthy weight. Eating predominantly plant and sometimes animal protein-based diets, tofu is very popular.
All of them lead naturally physical lives; by way of not using labour saving devices, none lead sedentary lifestyle, and they walk or cycle to most places. They exercise their body with a wide range of motion through daily gardening, growing their own source of herbs and fresh vegetables. Food is their medicine.
Surround themselves with a Moai. We know that isolation in old age is unhealthy and shortens a person’s life. Okinawans take part in societal activities like hobbies, gardening, family gatherings and are part of a Moai, which roughly translated means ‘meeting for a common purpose’, they are friendship groups which start in childhood and extend all their lives as lifelong companions, meeting for a cheeky Sake and a good gossip and a laugh on a daily basis. So being part of a secure social support network really has benefits, feeling that there is a safety net in times of need.
Enjoy the sunshine. Okinawans have optimal vitamin D levels all year round for stronger bones and bodies, they know the importance of being out in the daylight hours.
A centenarian Kamada, was asked the secret to living to the age of 102. She replied “I used to be very beautiful. I had hair that came down to my waist. It took me a long time to realise that beauty is within. It comes from not worrying so much about your own problems. Sometimes you can best take care of yourself by taking care others”.
Another senior who rose at 4.30 am each day to swim, run, cycle and practice yoga, put it down to Vitamin S. He said, ‘You smile in the morning and it fortifies you all day long’.
There are so many great stories in this book that will light up your heart.
Have you ever thought what it is that gets you out of bed each morning? It could be your work, caring for others as you do, or your children, your pet, but something makes it worthwhile for you, even if the reason is buried deep in your subconscious. And it appears it is this that is the key to life satisfaction.
How this age-old ideology can help us find contentment
In the UK, we live our adult lives almost in two phases, work and retirement. Back in Okinawa, there is no word for retirement, instead it’s Ikigai.
Finding your Ikigai can take years but you can start by asking yourself questions like: What moments do you most enjoy every day? What do you look forward to the most? Why do you love doing a particular hobby or pastime? Our chosen hobbies tell us a lot about what we feel is right for us.