The Okinawa Blue Zone: Fulbright Fellowship Helps Mr. Kondo Pursue Healthy Aging Research in Longevity Hot Spot
As an undergraduate at the University of Southern California (USC), Mr. Kondo became interested in healthy aging through the science of caloric restriction. “As a wrestler in high school, I was intimately familiar with cutting calories as a way to maintain a competitive weight,” Mr. Kondo recalls, “however caloric restriction without malnutrition has also been shown to have health benefits that promote longevity.”
This fascination, along with his minor in East Asian Culture and Languages, guided Mr. Kondo to Okinawa, Japan, a place well-known for its longevity and nutrient-dense, low calorie diet. Mr. Kondo explained, “Okinawa is recognized as a ‘Blue Zone,’ which is a geographical area with a high prevalence of centenarians. It was the ideal place to study healthy aging.”
During his senior year at USC, Mr. Kondo applied for a Fulbright Fellowship in Okinawa. Following graduation, he moved to the Ryukyu archipelago to study at Okinawa International University under the supervision of Dr. D. Craig Willcox, Professor of Public Health and Gerontology, and a Principal Investigator of the Okinawa Centenarian Study, the longest ongoing centenarian study worldwide.
As a Fulbright Fellow, the opportunity to interact with locals proved enlightening. “The traditional Okinawan diet and food culture are more nuanced than hara-hachibu (a Japanese proverb to eat until you are 80-percent full),” Mr. Kondo points out. “On a memorable visit to a senior day-care center, I met a 94-year old woman full of vigor. She explained that what she ate was just as important as the amount she ate. ‘Nuchi gusui,’ she stressed, ‘food is medicine.’” The traditional plant-based Okinawan diet is rich in vitamins, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. Such a nutrient-packed diet is fundamental to the islanders’ extraordinary longevity.
At Okinawa International University, Mr. Kondo contributed to the Okinawa Centenarian Study by updating a book chapter for The Cultural Context of Aging, 4th edition, to detail Okinawan longevity from integrated cultural and scientific perspectives. In addition, Mr. Kondo participated in researching the FOXO3 gene. “This is a longevity-associated gene,” Mr. Kondo explains, “and exciting research has recently found that carriers of the longevity-associated version of the FOXO3 gene have minimal telomere shortening across different age groups in a cross-sectional study of Okinawans. An easier way of thinking about it is that FOXO3 may have a key role in reducing chronic oxidative stress and inflammation at the cellular level, particularly in the elderly, which translates to a longer, and healthier human lifespan.”
Mr. Kondo’s experiences in Okinawa have broadened his research horizons. His interactions with the robust Okinawan seniors made him realize that helping people achieve healthy lifestyles might reduce the burden of chronic diseases and ensure social wellness in not only Japan, but also in the United States. Mr. Kondo remarks, “I found that my interests in medicine coincide with the promotion of healthy aging, which motivated me to apply to medical school.” Mr. Kondo will begin medical school at Harvard University later this year.
During his Fulbright, Mr. Kondo also explored other parts of Japan to enjoy the seasonal beauty. In the autumn, he visited Kyushu to enjoy the fall leaves (kōyō) and to experience the Sapporo Snow Festival, he did a homestay with a local Hokkaido family. When his family visited from Hawaii in the spring, he took them to see the sakura at Himeji Castle.
After returning to Hawaii, Mr. Kondo continues to study the relationship between longevity, FOXO3, and telomere length with research collaborators at the University of Hawaii, John A. Burns School of Medicine. Since both Japan and the United States have aging societies, Mr. Kondo hopes that his background and Fulbright experience will help him be a mediator between the two countries working together to contribute to further research. Mr. Kondo observed that “The healthiest senior residents in Okinawa express an ikigai, or reason for living. For many, the most important ikigai is to help others. Fulbright was a valuable experience that has helped me to realize that I want to wake up each morning and work towards extending the ‘healthspan’ of others as a physician. This will be my ikigai in the service of others.”
“Sunrise from the top of Mt. Fuji”