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But simply restricting your diet to watercress and celery won't get you to your personal centennial. There are no magic potions or simple regimens that automatically bestow longevity. It's the total package that counts: diet, exercise, mental attitude, family and societal supportand, of course, your genetic makeup. Some of the longest-lived Asians appear to have an extended shelf life hardwired into their anatomy by their progenitors. "My parents and grandparents lived until they were in their late 80s and early 90s," says Hide Nakamatsu, a 1.47-meter-tall, 91-year-old bundle of life force wrapped in a white cotton frock, cotton gloves and a bright blue-and-white bonnet. The headgear is necessary to shade her darting eyes during her daily game of gateball, a fiercely competitive Okinawan version of croquet that, in Nakamatsu's case, involves lots of running from one hoop to the next. Once she's dispatched her opponent's ball from the field with a sharp crack, Nakamatsu returns to the shade of palm trees sheltering the gateball court. None of her three children, 10 grandchildren or nine great-grandchildren has ever suffered a major disease, she says; they rarely go to the doctor. "I suppose it's something I gave them in my blood."
Nakamatsu is almost certainly right. Scientists are only just beginning to unravel how genetic makeup affects aging. But research published in recent months suggests that a single gene or group of genes appear to control the aging process. Scientists at Harvard University and the University of California say a gene related to insulin production seems to control the onset of aging in experiments on yeasts and worms. Although the research is in its early stages, the scientists say there is a high likelihood a similar system for control of the aging process exists in humans.
The most important genetic factor in longevity is no mystery. Women live longer than men all over the world, usually between five and seven years longer in industrialized nations. In Okinawa, as many as 86% of the centenarians are female, according to scientist Craig Willcox, one of three authorsincluding his brother Bradleyof the 2001 best-selling book The Okinawa Program. Researchers think women might have a not-yet-understood genetic advantage. But DNA isn't entirely destinymen can improve their chances for a long life by avoiding destructive behaviors, such as heavy drinking, that most women tend to avoid. "From our studies, genetics accounts for about a third and lifestyle kicks in for the rest," says Willcox. "Of course, if you want to make it to 100, you need a very nice set of genes. But these days, making it to 90 isn't so hard, with a bit of luck and a good lifestyle."
Included in a "good lifestyle" is the avoidance of proven killers. Few of Asia's ancients smoke; if they once did, they kicked the vice long ago. Most will happily admit to taking a drink now and then, though, a habit whose benefits in moderation are well enough established that they are acknowledged even by such cautious institutions as the American Heart Association. The Hunza's are partial to "Hunza water"potent wines made from the area's fruits such as grapes, mulberry and the ubiquitous apricot. Residents of Sunchang county in South Korea swear by their soju and makgoli, fiery rice spirits. Park Bok Dong, who is 101, attributes a major part of her continuing health (until a few years ago she was still working in her family's rice fields) to her practice of downing several daily shots of 50-proof soju. Okinawa, meanwhile, has awamori, a distilled rice spirit that has a whiff of kerosene in its bouquet but is much beloved on the island. "I used to like to drink a lot of awamori when I was young," smiles Asanori Takemura, a beaming Okinawan baker who recently turned 93. "I still like to, but these days I only take one glass a nightno more."
Indeed, dietary moderation is a consistent feature of the lives of the superwrinklies. Protein and animal fat typically play a minimal role in their menus. In Sunchang, for example, rice and boiled vegetables are a staple. "The white-rice-and-vegetables-dominated diet consists primarily of carbohydrate, while remaining low in fat," says Dr. Park Sang Chul, who heads the World Health Organization's aging-research center in Seoul and has spent three years studying the residents of Sunchang. "Low fat content is one of the more crucial keys toward longevity." The story is similar for the locals of Hunza Valley, says Khwaja Khan, a physician in the Hunza town of Karimabad who has treated many of the valley's eldest residents. The Hunza, Khan says, were cut off from the outside world for centuries by the 7,000-meter Himalayan peaks ringing the valley, and until recently were forced to subsist on a spartan menu of apricots, walnuts, buckwheat cakes and fresh vegetables. Many cross the century mark, and a few motor on for another 10 years or longer.
Living in relatively poor conditions in a village free of the industrialized world's dietary sludgeand miles from a fast-food restaurantisn't required for long life. But eating habits influenced by scarcity appear to contribute to health. Says Chinese longevity expert Chen, the residents of Bama "are not starving, but for many years they weren't often full, either." In Okinawa, researchers found their subjects ate about 20% fewer calories than the Japanese averagewhich in turn is about 20% lower than the average in the U.S. According to Dr. Makoto Suzuki, leader of the study of Okinawan elders and one of Willcox's co-authors, a restricted-calorie diet might reduce the harmful effects of free radicalsmolecules that occur naturally in the body during biochemical reactions but that can damage cells and are implicated in most of the deleterious effects associated with aging, including cancers and cardiovascular diseases.
Happily, living to an advanced age doesn't depend entirely on self-denial. Researchers are also trying to pinpoint particular foods consumed in each of the regions that can help avert the diseases and disabilities associated with aging. The people of Bama, for example, cook with oils derived from hemp and the fruit of tea bushes. These oils are rich in unsaturated fat, vitamin E and vitamin B1antioxidant nutrients believed to contribute to a healthy cardiovascular system, says Chen, as well as helping prevent certain types of cancers. Suzuki says Okinawans do most of their stir-frying with canola oil, which has been widely shown to protect the body against free radicals.
The Okinawan elders who were part of Suzuki's study got most of their protein from fish, which provides another so-called good fat: omega-3. This oil is particularly prevalent in fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel, whose established heart-protecting properties are considered by researchers to be an important reason that Japan's incidence of heart disease is one-third that of the U.S.'s. Okinawans have about one-fifth as many heart attacks as North Americans, Suzuki says, and when they do, they are twice as likely to survive.