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

Alas, the inhabitants of Asia's Shangri-Las aren't always immune to the temptations of modern eating habits. In 1978, engineers constructing the famed Karakoram highway that links Pakistan with China blasted a route through the mountains and exposed the Hunza Valley to the outside world. Since then, says local physician Khan, consumption of previously unheard-of items such as artery-clogging potato chips and white sugar has risen sharply. The consequences have been swift, too. In the past, "people would die from diarrhea or from falling off cliffs. That was about it," says Khan. "But now they are coming down with hypertension, heart attacks and cancer, just like everywhere else."

It's a similar story in Okinawa, where the island's youth are increasingly succumbing to the lure of fast food. "The young people are eating hamburgers and pork and don't do enough exercise," Suzuki says. "Okinawan male life expectancy used to be No. 1 in Japan. It started to decline 10 years ago, and hit 26th out of 47 prefectures in the 2000 census. I expect it to decline even further in the next census." The change is almost entirely due to a much higher mortality among younger people, according to Suzuki. "The elders are living longer but the young are dying younger." If any further evidence is needed of the dramatic effect a change in diet can produce, Suzuki points to the example of an Okinawan community in South America. Recruited to work on rubber plantations, several hundred thousand islanders moved to Brazil in the 1930s and switched to eating large amounts of beef because it was widely available and cheap. According to Suzuki, they now live an average 64 years―17 years lower than the Okinawa average.

Still, a healthy diet is hardly the only prerequisite for a long life. Scientists say another key factor is your mind-set―that's to say, the emotional resources that enable you to cope with the stresses of daily life from missing the bus to enduring the death of a loved one. Inner strength derives in part from vigorous activity, mental and physical. Bama centenarian Huang Maliang, for example, still prides herself on her ability to thread a tiny embroidery needle, although she no longer works in the fields since injuring her hip two years ago. Okinawan elder Setsuko Miyasato, 90, still spends three hours a day tending to her vegetable and fruit plots. "I used to have someone do the hoeing for me when I was younger," says the animated, silver-haired Miyasato, shielding her mouth as she giggles at the thought. "But I've done it myself since I was 48. The exercise is good for me. You've got to keep yourself busy."

That might be a mantra for elders across the region. Okinawan baker Asanori Takemura rises every morning at 5 o'clock to put in his shift at the bakery he started 50 years ago. At 93, he continues to create new confections for the bakery, which specializes in rakugan, cookies given as gifts on ceremonial occasions such as weddings. "He's still the boss here," says Takemura's son Isao. "He's the one who started the business and he still knows best."

Isao, 68, is smiling as he says this, but he isn't just humoring an old man. His tone is respectful, and his father simply nods his head at being given his due. Such reverence for the elderly is another constant in Asia's longevity oases―and it's apparently healthy. In the Hunza Valley, elders' opinions on critical issues such as when to plant the barley and the buckwheat are listened to with reverence. Haji Sikander, an 84-year-old former schoolteacher, sits with his friends under an ancient chinar tree in the village of Ganish, watching boys dive into a tank of silty brown, glacier-fed water. "The elders have always had a command here in the valley," he says with satisfaction. "What we say is respected."

As Setsuko Miyasato sees it, respect is important because it helps build the inner strength she believes is the key to achieving a long life. "In the end, it's your mental attitude that's most important," she says. "Every morning I wake up and I'm just grateful for being alive and healthy. You have to try not to worry about tomorrow too much. Don't get too serious. Don't think too much. Sing out loud and play your music."

Don't worry. Be happy. Live long. It might not be quite that simple, but it's time-honored wisdom from a woman who has lived by it for almost a century.

―With reporting by Mingi Hyun/Seoul, Susan Jakes/Pinghan, Hanna Kite and Yuki Oda/Okinawa and Tim McGirk/Hunza Valley






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