Walking at a brisk pace can increase your longevity. -Photo: Thinkstock

Two “secrets” to longevity are well known. One is keeping physically active and the second is maintaining a healthy, slender body.

These so-called secrets are often mentioned as the best ways to assure good health and longer lifespans. However, while they are easy to understand, they are not so easy to commit to, especially for 60 or 70-plus years.

I recall a childhood neighbor, Mrs. T., a widow and elementary school teacher. She was Asian, slender and walked very rapidly. Each day, Mrs. T. walked briskly up and down our hill to catch the bus to and from school. Once at school, she stood to teach for several hours each day. On weekends, she gardened at home.

Mrs. T. lived to be over 100 years old. Being Chinese, slim, physically active for at least six hours a day and always walking at a quick pace are all positive indicators for reaching 100 years of age. (I tried to duplicate her daily quick-paced, uphill walk when I was in my 40s or 50s. I barely made it, finishing at a much slower pace than Mrs. T. It gave me a greater appreciation of her quick uphill pace.)

Modern cellular science has unveiled another indicator of the odds for a long life: telomeres. Telomeres are found in the nucleus of every cell of the human body. The nucleus is an important, membrane-encased body within each cell that holds the cell’s genetic material, or DNA, embedded in its chromosomes. Twenty-three pairs of chromosomes are twisted into strands of DNA. The telomeres are “caps” on both ends of the strands of chromosomes to protect the DNA ends. Each time that a cell divides to reproduce, its telomeres get shorter. Over time, when the telomeres are too short to divide, the body stops making those cells. With passage of time, aging sets in and death nears.

Telomeres vary in length. Most individuals have middle-length range telomeres, which scientists believe is ideal. Shorter telomeres are associated with a higher risk for pulmonary fibrosis and aplastic anemia, and if the person smokes, for developing emphysema. Long telomeres are linked with a greater risk of melanoma, lung cancer and some types of leukemia and brain tumors. The length of our telomeres is inherited from our parents and can’t be altered; scientists warn against supplements on the market that promise to do so. So far, scientists agree that telomeres are not good predictors of the length of life. However, factors associated with early death are, including smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, excess body weight and exercise habits. Scientists studying telomeres agree that a healthy lifestyle includes a good diet and exercise, both definitively being linked to slower aging.

Decades of Hawaiʻi’s data on longevity show that Chinese live longest and Japanese second-longest. And, since 1980, Hawaiʻi’s Filipino population has held third place. Since earliest available data, full-blooded Hawaiians have had a shorter life expectancy compared to part-Hawaiians and all other ethnicities.

Full-blooded Hawaiians had death rates double that of all others from 1940 to 1980. All Hawaiʻi’s ethnic populations have consistently improved their lifespans, including both Hawaiian groups. In the 1800s, infectious-contagious illnesses led to shorter lifespans. In more recent decades, chronic illnesses, heart, diabetes, and cancer have shortened life. Much speculation on causes for early-death in Hawaiʻi exists but has never been investigated.

Early death among Native Hawaiians has been devastating. This problem demands attention and solutions. It’s obvious this problem requires public health attention. First steps are raising awareness of the problems, seeking solutions and then working on them. The lāhui must be included from the outset and involved in the solutions.