University of Hawaii researcher Bradley Willcox, a Canadian-born physician, is quite certain he lives in paradise. It’s not the beaches, the weather or the surfing that has this geriatrician so enthralled. Willcox, one of the world’s experts on healthy aging, came here from Harvard University 13 years ago for one reason: Hawaii has the highest percentage of healthy seniors in the nation, and he wanted to study them. When he’s not making his rounds at the Queen’s Medical Center, he is principal investigator of several studies funded by the National Institute on Aging at the Kuakini Honolulu Heart Program.
Operated out of Kuakini Medical Center since 1965, it is among the longest-running longitudinal aging studies in the nation. With an enrollment of 8,006 men, all Americans of Japanese ancestry, he reckons it’s a national treasure as a source of data on healthy aging.
For example, the data unearthed from the study’s DNA “biobank” helped the Willcox scientific team identify a link between the Foxo3 gene and human longevity — the first gene associated with longevity across multiple species. (Those who have the longevity variant have up to triple the chances of living to age 100.)
In many cases the children of the original participants are still involved with the program.
Willcox is particularly interested in Okinawans, who are the longest-lived people on the planet. He co-authored a New York Times best-seller, “The Okinawa Program” (also known as “The Okinawa Way”) along with his twin brother, Craig (a medical anthropologist who resides in Okinawa), and a Japanese physician-researcher, Makoto Suzuki, in 2002.
What has he learned about healthy aging from the Okinawans?
The Okinawan diet can actually prevent illness. Okinawans have a saying, “Nuchi gusui,” which translates as “Food is medicine,” and his team of UH-KMC researchers is beginning to understand the science behind this adage.
What he’s learned is that particular micronutrients found in those purple Okinawan sweet potatoes, turmeric (also grown in Okinawa) and certain seaweeds and kelp (which contain a compound called astaxanthin) are particularly potent at warding off disease. Eating the right foods, with the right micronutrients, not only lessens risk for many age-associated diseases, but also might actually affect the rate of aging.
“We think the phytonutrients in the Okinawan Diet can be turned into therapies such as drugs and supplements that can keep you healthy and extend your life span,” Willcox says. “These can be developed in Hawaii.”
Hawaii is already a world leader in medical research on aging, but Willcox believes it also could be an innovation hub for rejuvenation medicine.
Research in Hawaii, particularly the collaboration between the John A. Burns School of Medicine’s Department of Geriatric Medicine scientists and the Kuakini Honolulu Heart Program, is already attracting national attention. In particular, Calico, a mainland biotech company founded by Google, has been tracking the program closely.
“They understand that the value locked away in the data from the participants of the Honolulu Heart Program is potentially priceless,” Willcox says.
He believes that expanding Kuakini’s research program while developing therapies in concert with local biotech companies will draw scientists, business and visitors from around the world. Combining Hawaii’s lure as a destination with world-class science, health and biotech could be a powerful economic formula.
In the meantime, says Willcox, instead of an apple a day, an Okinawan sweet potato garnished with some turmeric and seaweed will definitely keep the doctor away, and might even help make you a centenarian.
Rob Kay has written about technology and life sciences for over 20 years. His columns have appeared in Pacific Business News, the Honolulu Star Bulletin and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.