For over a decade, with help from the National Geographic Society, there has been a study of places in the world where people live the longest. Of particular interest is the island of Ikaria whose inhabitants reach the age of 90 at two and one-half times the American rate, and remain sharp physically and mentally, and sexually active.
Ikaria is is called The Island Where People Forget to Die by Dan Buettner in a New York Times article. Positioned about 30 miles from Turkey’s western coast, the 99-square-mile island is home to nearly 10,000 Greek nationals. Although its scrub-covered mountain ridges rise up from the Aegean Sea, it has been blessed with thick oak forests and healthy vineyards for centuries.
Over 2500 years ago, Ikaria was a health spa where Greeks came to the hot springs near Therma. Joseph Georgirenes, bishop of Ikaria, wrote in the 1600s, “The most commendable thing on this island is their air and water, both so healthful that people are very long-lived, it being an ordinary thing to see persons in it of 100 years of age.”
Dan Buettner’s study of areas where people live longer grew out of a project by his partners, Dr. Gianni Pes at University of Sassari in Italy and Dr. Michel Poulain, a Belgian demographer. Their findings included part of Sardinia’s Nuoro mountains for the highest concentration of male centenarians, the island of Okinawa for the longest-lived women, and the Loma Linda, California Seventh-day Adventists who live about ten years longer than an average American. Buettner began a consulting firm in 2003 to apply what was being learned to American communities, and in 2008 the study focused on Ikaria.
Some of the possible connections to long life based on those of the Ikarians are:
- The diet of the residents is mostly vegetables grown in their gardens, mainly legumes and greens, and rich in olive oil, low in meat products and dairy, except goat’s milk, high in homegrown potatoes, garbanzo beans, black-eyes peas and lentils, and locally produced honey and goat milk.
- They eat their meals in a relaxed way, enjoying the food and the company and conversation with it, even at work lunch breaks.
- Their sleeping habits are staying up late, waking up late, and always taking 30 minute to two hour naps in mid-day.
- Time is unimportant. No one wears a watch. The doctor’s office does not open until 11 a.m. since no one arrives before then. There is much less stress.
- Ikarians do not place so much importance on money. Instead they pool it to buy wine and food for many religious and cultural holidays.
- They have a strong sense of community. Any money left over from the pools is given to the poor. They socialize and laugh daily. “Even if you’re antisocial, you’ll never be entirely alone. Your neighbors will cajole you out of your house for the village festival to eat your portion of goat meat.”
- Roughly three-fourths of the population is under 65 and the youngest often come home after college to live with their parents. They find small jobs and are partly supported by family. They learn from living with their elders which provides a lifelong sense of purpose for senior citizens.
- Their drinking habits include moderate amounts of alcohol.
- Their special medicine is a local mountain tea of dried island herbs like wild marjoram, sage (flaskomilia), mint (fliskouni), rosemary, boiled dandelion leaves and lemon drunk at the end-of-the-day as a cocktail. They also use honey to heal wounds, cure hangovers, and treat flu. The elderly begin the day with a spoonful of honey.
- They do not formally exercise like Americans, but they do lock arms and kick-dance to Greek music, and as Buettner says, ” It’s hard to get through the day in Ikaria without walking up 20 hills.”
- On Sundays they attend church and they fast before Orthodox feast days.
Buettner visited Ikarians Thanasis and Eirini Karimalis, a couple married for 75 years, who told him about their typical day. They wake naturally, work in the garden, have a late lunch of almost always beans like lentils and garbanzos; potatoes; greens like fennel, dandelion or horta (similar to spinach); and seasonal vegetables from their garden. They take a nap and dinner is bread and goat’s milk. At sunset, they either visit neighbors or neighbors visit them. They slaughter the family pig for Christmas and Easter and eat “small portions of larded pork for the next several months.”
The visit continued with a tour of the couple’s property where Buettner was introduced to the family pigs by name. They returned to the Karimalis home for some tea at sunset and then another old couple walked in, “carrying a glass amphora of homemade wine. The four nonagenarians cheek-kissed one another heartily and settled in around the table. They gossiped, drank wine and occasionally erupted into laughter.”
There are several possibilities of why Ikarians live so long. Their plant-based diet, absent of refined sugar and white flour using mostly stone-ground wheat is one. A study of the diet of 673 Ikarians found they daily consumed about “six times as many beans as Americans, ate fish twice a week and meat five times a month, drank on average two to three cups of coffee a day and took in about a quarter as much refined sugar — the elderly did not like soda.” They also consumed high levels of olive oil and two to four glasses of wine a day. They intake fewer pesticides and more nutrients from their home-grown vegetables.
Buettner concludes that to have longevity people must live in an ecosystem that is conducive to adopting a healthful lifestyle with its culture, belonging, purpose and religion foundation with “mutually reinforcing relationships.” Read his descriptive article for more in-depth information.