Long Lives Well Lived #2/4 ( By TIME - jun. 14. 2003 )

At Asia's other extreme, the average life expectancy in Afghanistan is just 43.1 years. But in neighboring Pakistan there is the geriatric oasis of the Hunza Valley. High in the country's northern mountains, it's a place of such pristine beauty and with such a reputation for fostering longevity that author James Hilton was inspired by a visit there to write Lost Horizon, the 1933 novel about an isolated valley called Shangri-La whose residents lived for hundreds of years. Another death-defying region, currently being studied by gerontologists, is a cluster of villages in Sunchang county located in South Korea's mountainous southwest, where some local farmers continue to work the fields until they are well into their 90s.

Is it something in the water? Why do some communities, located in disparate places and harboring very different cultures, seem to be built atop a fountain of youth? Scientific efforts to uncover the secrets behind these mysterious, mini Shangri-Las have varied enormously in scope, ranging from a sporadic, amateur attempt by a busy general practitioner in the Hunza Valley to a quarter-century study in Okinawa during which researchers carefully amassed and analyzed data on everything from eating habits to the preferred hobbies of the oldest of the old (they enjoy playing the Okinawan three-string sanshin and singing traditional folk songs). There are tantalizing consistencies in research findings, offering priceless clues to aspiring centenarians on what it takes to live a long and healthy life.

You've heard some of the secrets of Asia's most senior citizens before (probably from your mother): eschew an excess of meat, eat your vegetables and get plenty of exercise. Other lessons from their lives are downright depressing, particularly for gastronomes who regard Asia as a place where one lives to eat rather than the reverse. For example, it's best to eat only until you are hara hachi bu, or "8 parts out of 10 full," as the Okinawan phrase puts it. An old wives' tale, perhaps, but scientific evidence has been steadily mounting for years that gives credence to this simple adage. A daily diet restricted to between half and three-quarters of the 2,100 calories recommended by the U.S. government appears to boost health in humans, and an equivalent reduction has extended the lives of lab rats.

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 support―and, 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 authors―including his brother Bradley―of the 2001 best-selling book The Okinawa Program. Researchers think women might have a not-yet-understood genetic advantage. But DNA isn't entirely destiny―men 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."

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