The Greek island whose happy people ‘forget to die’

It’s no myth: on Ikaria a mix of contentment, diet and social interaction extend life well beyond the norm

Ikaria: the island’s inhabitants live 10 years longer than Americans before contracting cancer or cardiovascular disease, and suffer much less from depression. Photograph: Thinkstock

Ikaria: the island’s inhabitants live 10 years longer than Americans before contracting cancer or cardiovascular disease, and suffer much less from depression. Photograph: Thinkstock

 

Certain communities in discrete pockets around the world live considerably longer than the norm elsewhere. Researchers eagerly study such communities, trying to discover reasons for their longevity. In a fascinating article in the New York Times in October 2012, Dan Buettner describes one such community on the Greek island of Ikaria, and concludes that their secret is a complex amalgam of social supports, contentment, diet and purpose in life.

Ikaria covers 99sq m, has a population of 10,000 people and lies 30 miles off the coast of Turkey. Ikarians reach the age of 90 at 2½ times the rate Americans do, and suffer only about a quarter the rate of dementia. They also live 10 years longer than Americans before contracting cancer or cardiovascular disease, and suffer much less from depression.

Buettner interviewed Stomatis Moraitis, an Ikarian who emigrated to the US in 1943 and lived there until 1976, when he was diagnosed with lung cancer and given nine months to live. He returned to live his remaining months in Ikaria. Moraitis spent the first few months mainly in bed, tended by his wife. His Ikarian friends heard he was home and started to visit him every afternoon, talking and laughing for hours over a bottle or two of local wine. Moraitis gradually recovered his strength, started to plant vegetables in his garden, enjoyed the sun and sea air and reconnected with the Greek Orthodox faith of his youth.

The months passed and Moraitis did not die; he grew stronger. He eased into the island routine. He rose from bed in the morning when he felt like it, worked in the garden and vineyard into the mid-afternoon, made lunch and then took a long nap. Most evenings he played dominoes in the local bar past midnight. The years passed and his health continued to improve. Today, 38 years later, he is 99 years old and cancer-free. He never went through chemotherapy or took any drugs. He simply moved home to Ikaria.

Buettner asked Moraitis how he got rid of his cancer. He replied that it just went away. “I actually went back to America about 25 years after moving here to see if the doctors could explain it to me,” he said. “What happened?” asked Buettner. “My doctors were all dead,” said Moraitis.

 

‘Nobody wears a watch’

A local physician described the Ikarian lifestyle. “People stay up late here and wake up late and always take naps. Nobody wears a watch; we don’t care about watches here. Just 15km over there is a completely different world [the island of Samos], with high-rises and resorts and homes worth €1 million. In Samos they care about money. Here we don’t. For religious and cultural holidays, people pool their money and buy food and wine. It’s not a ‘me’ place. It’s an ‘us’ place.”

The Ikarian Mediterranean diet is distinctive, typically goat’s milk, wine, sage tea or coffee, honey and bread for breakfast; beans, potatoes, greens and seasonal vegetables for lunch; and goat’s milk and bread for dinner. Fresh fish is eaten twice a week, meat about five times a month and olive oil is consumed plentifully. Eating is a social event.

At the end of each day they drink a “mountain tea” made from local dried herbs followed by a few glasses of wine with friends. Each food consumed by Ikarians has been linked to improved lifespan – low intake of saturated fat correlates with lower risk of heart disease; olive oil reduces ‘bad’ cholesterol; wild greens are rich in antioxidants; wine in moderation is good for you.

Ikarians’ sleep and sex habits also promote longevity. Occasional napping correlates with a 12 per cent reduction in incidence of cardiovascular disease, but regular napping (at least three times a week) is associated with a 37 per cent reduction. Also, 80 per cent of Ikarian men between the ages of 65 and 100 claim to have regular sex, a quarter of whom say that they are doing it with “good duration” and “achievement”.

Many factors mutually enhance each other in promoting Ikarian longevity: people get plenty of rest; Ikarians live in an interconnected web of community and never feel alone; crime rates are low because everyone watches everyone else; everyone grows a garden; the cheapest, most accessible foods are also the healthiest; Ikaria is hilly so everyone gets exercise; Ikarians drink herbal tea and a few glasses of wine with friends at the end of the day, and on Sunday they go to church. The entire Ikarian ecosystem supports life, enmeshing people in such healthy contentment that one old woman has put it thus: “We just forget to die.”

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC. understandingscience.ucc.ie

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