Words by Veronique Greenwood
Photographs by Stefan Dotter
In our pursuit of longer life, we overlook the experience of the long-lived.
The island hangs like a green bead off the southern tip of Japan. Trimmed with white beaches and spreading banyan trees, it’s a place of long summers dominated by the thrum of cicadas. An orange-gold turmeric tea is a common local drink, a signature touch of a cuisine that blends Asian influences and has its roots in the time when this place, along with more than a hundred smaller islands, were their own kingdom with links to China and Southeast Asia. The island of Okinawa, subsumed into the Japanese empire in the late 1800s, has hung on to its differences. And it harbors a surprising demographic quirk. For many years, it has been home to one of the largest proportions of centenarians—people a century or more old—anywhere in the world.
It has not been an easy life. Many of these people were born well before World War II, into lean times when life expectancy was around 40. They survived the devastating American invasion of Okinawa in the spring of 1945, during which villagers were issued bombs by the Japanese military to commit mass suicide and civilian casualties may have topped 100,000. They lived through the wrenching post-war years, the re-making of Japanese society, the decades-long American occupation of the islands, the rise and eventual fall of Japan as an economic powerhouse. For the most part, they lived well, finds the Okinawa Centenarian Study, a long-term study running since 1975 that interviews and assesses elders. Most centenarians in the study were functionally independent into their 90s.
The factors leading to their longevity have been the subject of intense study. Demographers Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain and author Dan Buettner named Okinawa one of five Blue Zones, regions around the world where people reach remarkable ages. Scientists have documented Okinawans’ diet, their genetics, and their social lives in search of secrets that someone in Minnesota or New South Wales could use to live longer. Legumes and vegetables are major parts of the traditional Okinawan diet, and meat is an occasional spice. “Living in a farming village in Okinawa used to be very hard. In the old days, we were really self-sufficient. We mostly grew rice and a little bit of sugarcane. Our staple food was potatoes. We used rice only for celebrations,” said 97-year old Zengi Oganeku in Japanese, translated by Lisa Tanimura. Okinawans partake in constant, moderate exercise as they garden and walk in their communities, in which they have rich social connections. They take in a relatively small number of calories each day—around 1,800—and a common saying reminds them to eat only until they are 80% full, perhaps inducing caloric restriction, a well-supported way to extend lifespan in animals and people.
People in distant countries have tried to mimic their diets in attempts to lengthen their own lives. But Okinawa raises another important question: how are age, wisdom, and community intertwined?
Old age of the most basic kind—living long enough to be a grandparent—is a relatively recent phenomenon in our evolution. For much of prehistory, life was very short, said Rachel Caspari, a biological anthropologist at the University of Michigan. “All of us who study prehistory know that there was very high mortality,” she reflected. Research has shown that young people dominate prehistoric grave sites. That meant there were large numbers of orphans, few if any grandparents, and ramifying family structures in which children were cared for by whatever relatives remained.
But by looking at signifiers of age, like tooth wear and the presence of wisdom teeth, Caspari and her colleague Sang-Hee Lee hoped to paint a picture of the demographic situation with far greater detail.
In 2004, they published a paper in which they examined the teeth of more than 700 early humans and other hominids, like Neanderthals. They looked to see whether the ratio of older individuals to younger ones in these burials changed over time—essentially checking for a change in lifespan. They saw something striking.
“What you have is a huge increase in the number of older adults that corresponds to the Upper Paleolithic, which is not very long ago,” Caspari said, only around 30,000 years in the past. In this period, for the first time, there were more older adults than younger ones among the dead. The ratio of old to young was five times greater than in the Middle Paleolithic. What’s more, Caspari and Lee believe that these adults reached ages older than 30, about the age when they could start becoming grandparents.
At around the same time, human cultures seem to have made a leap forward, growing more complex and staying that way. It wasn’t the first time that hominids made delicate spearheads or left drawings on cave walls. Neanderthals had pigments, and in the Middle Paleolithic in Africa, there were tiny pocket cultures that carved sophisticated harpoons and made etchings. “But that doesn’t last. That’s the interesting thing: they’re very ephemeral,” said Caspari. “These little individual cultures would die out. [Perhaps] because they didn’t have enough people.”
While we will never know exactly why longevity and complexity appear around the same time, it’s possible that when people stayed alive longer and had more children, cultures were able to persist. Crucially, elders might also have started caring for their children’s children. Anthropologists have long discussed the Grandmother Hypothesis: older generations can improve the survival of their descendants, this idea goes, by shouldering some of the load of childcare and bringing along their own considerable experience. This releases the parents to have more children or to contribute to their culture in other ways.
It’s one explanation for another distinctly human peculiarity. Unlike other primates, we frequently live for decades after we’re no longer fertile. Perhaps age is a tool for survival that has catapulted our species onward, far beyond what those first little cultures could have imagined. “Living longer,” said Caspari, “has lots of downstream impacts.”
But age is one thing, and wisdom is another. Living in a community with many older members, is wisdom more prevalent?
Wisdom has long intrigued Dilip Jeste, a psychiatrist who specializes in the elderly. For most of the twentieth century, wisdom—the ability to synthesize past experience and keep calm and focused while making tough decisions—was considered too fuzzy of a concept for serious psychologists to study. As with consciousness, if you wanted to study wisdom, you had to call it something else and keep it quiet. Jeste eventually discovered that a small core of researchers in southern California had been working to understand wisdom since the 1970s. Reading the literature and talking to other researchers, “I started to get a sense of what wisdom is,” he said.
Wisdom is a personality trait, like resilience, or extraversion, Jeste wrote in his 2020 book, Wiser. The most important component of wisdom is empathy. The wise also have the ability to think critically about their own thoughts, a healthy measure of emotional stability, an acceptance of uncertainty, and the ability to concede the validity of other perspectives.
Some of the capacity for wisdom is genetic. But some of it is influenced by our environment and behavior—it can be developed over time. “Experience doesn’t make a person wiser,” said Jeste. “It’s what you do with the experience that can make you wiser.” Learning from the past, reflecting on it, and coming to a conclusion for the future is not as universal as you might hope.
Does wisdom increase with age? Yes, said Jeste, with two caveats. It’s not a given that wisdom will arrive along with white hair. “There are some young people who are wise and some old people who are not,” he pointed out. And it doesn’t increase forever. At a certain point, neurodegeneration catches up, and wisdom starts to go down.
At the same time, Jeste has found a surprising pattern as he and colleagues have conducted large-scale studies using questionnaires and scales for measuring wisdom. “One of the most interesting and consistent findings is that loneliness and wisdom go in different directions,” he said. “Those who score high on wisdom are not likely to be lonely and vice versa.”
There are probably a number of factors contributing to this relationship. The distress and disconnection that typifies loneliness might interfere with people’s ability to maintain the compassion for one’s self and others that is a feature of wisdom. And a community led by the wise can make policies that enhance compassion and connection between its members.
In a handful of remote villages in Italy with high rates of centenarians, Jeste has met people whose homes are far from train lines, whose lives could be profoundly lonely. But they are knit into the fabric of their community, even when that community is spread out across the landscape.
When you get down to it, if you want to have relationships with others, you have no choice but to practice empathy, to accept the existence of a world seen through other people’s eyes. Perhaps connection with other people is the thread that binds wisdom and greater age together.
In Okinawa, and in other places where people live to great age, scientists have remarked again and again on the way the oldest relate to those around them. They have strong social networks that persist over vast swaths of time.
Traditionally, Okinawans are members of groups of five or so, called “moai,” who support each other from childhood on. As adults, they might meet weekly for drinks and a chat. If one member faces a disaster, financial, emotional, or otherwise, the others pitch in. The moai are a remnant of a time when insurance was unknown in the islands and villagers formed groups for mutual aid. One moai, with an average age of 102, had been meeting regularly for 97 years when author Dan Buettner met them. “If one of them does not show up,” he and a colleague wrote, “the other 4 put on their kimonos to walk across the village to check on their friend.”
You don’t have to be born in Okinawa to have a moai. Nor do they have to be groups of children, matched together because of their age. Dr. Craig Willcox is a professor of public health who has studied elders on the island for more than 25 years as part of the Okinawa Centenarian Study. He was part of a moai for about a decade, he told me over the phone recently from his home in Okinawa. The groups typically have some feature that binds them together, he said. In his, the members all shared an interest in the sea—one made sails for sailboats, others maintained boats or owned them. Each time they met, they would contribute money to a kitty. Whoever needed it that month, the group decided, would have it.
“It helps build trust between you and your moai partners…you’ve got to really trust them,” he said. “They help you out, not only financially but emotionally. If you have a problem, if you’re not getting on with your partner or have an accident, they come to your rescue.” His own ocean-based moai eventually faded out, in part due to a bad business deal, but he speaks of the group fondly. Even if it wasn’t forever, it was important.
It is this kind of chosen family, more than eating a specific diet or mimicking certain styles of exercise, that might appeal to many of us far from this island of the old. The thought of a small group that holds us close and relies on us in turn has a warmth to it, a kind of strength to stand up to the shocks of the world.
Okinawa no longer has the record for the most centenarians in Japan. Other regions have increasing life expectancies, Willcox said. For reasons that are not clear—perhaps partly due to a more Westernized diet—younger Okinawans do not live as long as their elders. And while Japan has more resources than the United States for supporting elders—a national system of long-term care insurance, many provisions for allowing people to stay in their own homes as they age—they’re not perfect. As Japan’s aging population continues to balloon over the coming decades, Willcox expects care systems to be strained.
The elders on Okinawa have watched their island home change a lot in their lifetime: from self-sustaining agriculture to shopping in supermarkets, from fishing in the sea to watching industrialization rise around them. Eighty-two-year-old Fumiko Tamaki has seen the culture change, too: “In the past, we used to know who lived next door in the neighborhood, but now we don’t have that kind of contact anymore. If possible, I would like people to cherish contact with their neighbors.”
Despite these societal changes, one thing that stands out, one big difference between many people’s experience of age and that on Okinawa, is that the old are not hidden. In the United States, the very old are rarely seen. They might manage to stay in their own homes for a time—only 8% of Americans 85 and older lived in care homes in 2019—but few resources link them to each other and their surrounding communities.
In Okinawa, the old remain connected to their social networks, to their neighborhoods, to their families, biological or not.
“We had in the market here a couple centenarians still working. One was selling upholstery,” said Willcox, “and another was selling fruit.” The tinkling songs of the garbage truck and a vendor selling roasted sweet potatoes sound in the background as he describes a 100-year-old neighbor who still walks to the market with a cart, the busses that carry seniors daily to centers where they socialize, the 107-year-old auntie he and his wife used to visit.
They are just around. Here, in plain sight.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING Lisa Tanimura SPECIAL THANKS Christopher Nicholls POST-PRODUCTION Sheriff Paris
This article first appeared in Atmos Volume 07: Prism with the headline “In the Blue.”
A prism is a multidimensional body that refracts, disperses, or in some cases, distorts light. Atmos Volume 07: Prism is a study of light, color, dimension, and perspective. It asks such questions as: How do we find the light in a world that can feel so dark? How do our identities shape the lenses through which we experience reality? How do we move past binary thinking and embrace a more prismatic or nuanced view of the world? How do ideas disseminate and refract? What role does transparency play in that process? What symbolism do specific colors hold, in both the human and natural world?