Keep busy, sweat it out, and embrace the years. These are some simple tips on healthy ageing.
THE golden rules of healthy ageing are very simple: eat right, exercise, be your age and do not smoke. Most of all, focus on being happy and don’t forget your life goals.
To embrace the years with positivity, says Professor Makoto Suzuki, 87, one should look at them as chouju, meaning “celebrating long life” in Japanese. “The onus is on us to focus on quality, and work on having many momentous occasions.”
Suzuki, chief director of the Okinawa Research Center for Longevity Science, was speaking to a captive audience at the 1st World Congress of Healthy Aging, in Kuala Lumpur last Wednesday. The title of his talk was, Secrets Of The Okinawan Centenarians’ Longevity.
This specialist in cardiology and gerontology had moved to Okinawa from Tokyo to accept a tenure with the University of Ryukyus 35 years ago. He also had a role model in his own mother, who passed away last year, at the age of 100 years and 10 months.
Forget the wrinkles: Keep active, eat moderately and embrace the years, says Professor Makoto Suzuki, happily posing for a photo with his wife, Yoko.
From the lessons gathered from a community that boasts the highest and healthiest longevity rates in the world, Suzuki says a diet laden with vegetables, but less meat, plays a big part in healthy ageing. The goal is tomaintain the same body weight one had at the age of 30.
Statistics from 2006 show that women in Okinawa have an average life expectancy of 87 years, about 10 years higher than that of the men. (In Malaysia, life expectancy averages 73.17 years.)
“The Okinawans have a custom of saying ‘harahachibu’ before each meal. This is a reminder not to overeat. Preferably, one should stop when the stomach is about 70% full,” Suzuki says, when met after his talk at the KL Convention Centre.
He also points out that the Okinawan diet is rich in anti-ageing ingredients such as polyphenol, phytoestrogen, isoflavones and good amyloids. These are commonly found in bitter gourd, soybean products like tofu (Okinawa is especially famous for its silky beancurd), brown rice, cereals and fatty fish.
Okinawans also favour the use of mugwort (artemisiabulgaris), touted for its medicinal qualities. Its leaves are dried, ground and used to flavour grilled meats and vegetable stir frys.
Exercise also comes into the equation and Suzuki advises the young to start as early as possible as the effective benefits of that lessens after the age of 40.
The dapper Tan Sri Dr Ahmad MustaffaBabjee feels it’s important to follow the ways of nature.
As an archer and mountain climber himself, he emphasises that the elderly must find a way to sweat it out. Since his move to the flat plains of Okinawa, he has exchanged his climbing gear for a hoe because his wife, Yoko, has a farm where they spend most of their weekends.
For them, as with the majority of Okinawans, it is simply a matter of maintaining ikigai, the Japanese equivalent of raison d’être.
“Don’t worry about the wrinkles or being slow. Just be busy,” says Suzuki, who still lectures and conducts research at Ryukyus.
Inevitably, talk of active, healthy living leads to the question of bedroom frolics – which turns the hearty professor a shade of pink. Although he is not telling, from his exchanges with Yoko, 80, a homoepath, one gathers they are “quite active”.
“Funnily, I asked an Okinawan centenarian the same question but he refused to answer me. However, his wife said it is because of her that he is still healthy,” Suzuki says, laughing.
Death is also inevitable, but for the elderly in that island, what’s far more important than the end of one’s days is the role of the community in ensuring that they have a place in society.
“Elderly people need to have a sense of belonging, to know their role in a family is still valued. One of the reasons why the centenarians of Okinawa are able to lead a happy life is because they are revered by the younger people,” he says.
Suzuki elaborates on a daily ritual called ugan, during which the Okinawans pay respect to their ancestors at the family altar, and air their grievances to the dead. This has a therapeutic effect for the living, as it helps to alleviate stress.
On that loaded issue, fellow speaker Professor Suresh Rattan says mild stress is necessary for healthy living because it helps one stay alert and active. Exercise is one example of beneficial stress, as are brain teasers and games (like Sudoku), all of which help to keep the body flexible and the mind nimble.
Suresh, 57, a biogerontologist at the University of Aarhus’ Department of Molecular Biology in Denmark, spoke about Healthy Ageing – From Molecules ToHormesis.
On the home front, a specialist in healthy ageing at Pantai Medical Centre, KL, says often, senior citizens are not encouraged to keep pushing themselves, both physically and mentally.
“The Malaysian mindset is that old people should not exert themselves. As a result, their physical and mental faculties are left to decline,” says DrRajbans Singh, 52.
To have wellness and health in old age, it is crucial for an individual to take a proactive stand, like taking up tai chi, for example.
It may also be necessary to abstain from fast food and fizzy drinks, DrRajbans adds, because the high fat, sugar and sodium contents of these foods can lead to or aggravate conditions like hypertension and diabetes.
For Tan Sri Dr Ahmad MustaffaBabjee, a fellow of Academy of Science Malaysia, acceptance of one’s age is crucial so that growing old can be seen as a positive, natural process. Do not, for example, tell others that you are 47 when you are in fact 74! Instead, learn to enjoy being your age.
“It is important to be what you are and follow the ways of nature,” says Dr Ahmad, 75, who still cuts a dashing figure with his long snowy locks and thick moustache.
As for death itself, he reckons that it will be similar to being under anaesthesia, hence there is no need to fear.
“I am more afraid of being lonely,” adds Dr Ahmad, who continues to drive his 4WD into the jungle for a spot of bird watching, wildlife photography and white water rafting.
Dr Tan Maw Pin, associate professor of geriatric medicine from Universiti Malaya, says the Malaysian government can do more for the elderly in terms providing much-needed facilities.
“One mistake the planners made was to omit the elderly from the nation’s development plan, believing that as ours is a caring nation, they will automatically be taken care of. This is very well for those who are wealthy and can afford to pay for elderly care. What about those who cannot?” Dr Tan asks.
Datuk Seri Dr T. Devaraj, chairman of Malaysian Hospice Council, notes that the family safety net that once existed has been weakened by urbanisation.
Today, it is not uncommon for young people to leave their parents behind as they migrate to bigger cities to seek employment, says DrDevaraj, 87. Also, the elderly cannot assume that they can spend their twilight years in their children’s homes.
But leaving everything entirely to welfare is not the answer either, he adds.
Since the early days of Hospice, he had insisted that volunteers make home visits and not have the patients placed in a facility. This is so that their families, too, can play their part in the care-giving process.
“The idea is to have a sharing of responsibilities. If the state completely takes over, then family support will decrease,” adds DrDevaraj. That, in turn, will make the elderly feel even more alienated.
The World Congress on Healthy Ageing was organised by the Malaysian Healthy Ageing Society.