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Professor from Finland visits Okinawa researches islanders longevity

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1998-06-13

Japanese have the highest longevity rate in the world, but Okinawans hold that record within Japan, making them some of the healthiest and oldest living people in the world. For years scientists have tried to understand the aging process, and many studies have been done on the lifestyles of the Japanese people. Recently, Dr. Guy Bėckman M.D., a Professor from Abo Academy University in Finland, visited the island as part of a research project on the social welfare of the elderly.

Bėckman's visit was sponsored by the "Japanese Society for Promotion of Science" in cooperation with Osaka Prefecture University. He has been coming to Japan for the past ten years, and started his work with team member Professor Kikue Uda of Osaka Prefecture University. Bėckman was also a visiting Professor at Nagoya Nihon Fukushi University. His research on the health of the Japanese people has taken him all over Japan, but his visit to Okinawa was his first to the island. "Through my research, I learned that Okinawans are very healthy people, and I have always believed that Okinawa is the healthiest place in the world, so I am here to study the longevity of the people here," said Bėckman.

Before coming to Okinawa, Bėckman spent one month doing research in Osaka, along with his colleague Dr. Kenji Kuroda M.D., a Professor from Osaka Prefecture University. They then both came to Okinawa to continue their work, visiting several different places. Bėckman especially found his visit to the "Sunrise Home" for the elderly in Tamagusuku very interesting. "I was very impressed by the care that they gave to the elderly. I told them I would like to make a reservation for when I get older!" joked Bėckman. They also visited "Toyomi no Sato" in Tomishiro Village. The health center includes a hospital, health facility for the elderly, a special nursing home for the elderly, and a care house. Their busy schedule also included a visit to the home of a 94 year old woman, living by herself in Sashiki, and a lecture by Dr. Masaharu Matayoshi Ph.D. and Dr. Joyce Trafton Ph.D. on the "cultural background" of Okinawa.

"There is a relationship between economy and longevity. Usually we can find a higher rate of care for the elderly in higher economies. However, here in Okinawa, we see a high rate of public assistance for the elderly, but an economy that is very low compared to the rest of Japan," said Kuroda. He also said that he felt the service level for care of the elderly was very high compared to the rest of Japan. Bėckman also commented that overall he felt the social support on Okinawa was excellent.

Bėckman concluded from his research here in Okinawa that there are four major factors to the high rate of longevity among the Okinawan people. "First, the climate is very good. It is very warm and sunny here. Second, there is very good food behavior - lots of fish, vegetables, and pork without the fat. Third, we see very good working conditions. There is much care for employees, and a very high rate of job satisfaction. The fourth factor is Okinawa's cultural background. There are very good social networks and excellent support from family members and relatives. This type of social support is very important,"

"In most European countries we have what we call welfare states. In those countries much money goes towards social welfare. In Finland we spend 36% of our GNP on social welfare. This is extremely high, especially compared to a country like Japan, who only spends about 16% to 17% of their GNP on their social welfare system. I believe that we need to move towards "welfare pluralism", which is a system that would include both the public sector and private sector, as well as other organizations and NPO's, such as the Red Cross. This would also include increasing the responsibility of families and neighbors. Early researchers often talked about the welfare state, but I like to talk about the welfare system," explained Bėckman.

The native of Turku, Finland, will return to his country, where he will be concluding his ten years of research here in Japan with a book titled "The Enigma of Health in Japan". Bėckman also commented many times on how much he loves Japan, and he hopes that he will eventually be able to return to live here. He also thanked everyone who made his stay to Okinawa very enjoyable, especially Dr. Makato Ariizumi M.D., a Professor of the Department of Preventative Medicine at Ryukyu University.

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