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Q: I’ve heard that Okinawans are the longest-living people in the world. What’s up with that?

A: The World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other official entities have crunched the numbers, and Okinawa comes out on top in terms of life expectancy. It’s especially so when calculated in terms of how many centenarians — people 100 years old or older — are in the population. In 1976, an international team of researchers launched the Okinawa Centenarian Study, a project studying Okinawa’s centenarians that aims to figure out why those folks live so long — and so well.

The answer is complex. Good genes seem to affect longevity — Okinawan oldsters seem predisposed against inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, for example — but that’s not the only factor. Diet is key: Okinawans eat a relatively low-calorie diet, the study found, with a lot of fruits and veggies and soy, and tend to follow a cultural habit called “hara hachi bu” — eating only until they feel 80 percent full.

Okinawa’s elderly also prolong their lives by exercising regularly, not smoking or consuming alcohol excessively, and — this is science here, people — by having an optimistic outlook on life.

The study’s personality tests found that Okinawan centenarians had low feelings of “time urgency” and tension and high confidence and adaptability.

But in recent years, Okinawa’s life expectancy has been declining, especially among men. And, not coincidentally, Okinawan waistlines have been getting larger. Government and media reports have blamed the longevity decline on the increasing popularity of fast food and a Westernized lifestyle that encourages driving and one-stop shopping.

Got a question about goings-on in the Pacific? E-mail Stacy Chandler at: chandlers@pstripes.osd.mil

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