Do people on Ikaria hold the secret of longevity?
A place where people take it easy!
I first visited Ikaria at a very young age, but I already had an idea of what stress was! Our "sort-of-alternative" relaxing family vacation was over, our middle class family car was stuffed with suitcases, souvenirs and young children, all ready to return to the big city and our normal lives. And then we decided to have a quick snack at a small cafe near the port. Twenty minutes after ordering a couple of grilled cheese sandwiches, my parents dared to ask if they would take much longer. Turns out, they forgot about them. Second try: they left them in the grill for too long and now they were burnt. The friendly lady who was running the cafe asked her son to go and get some more bread. My parents were getting more and more annoyed by the situation. The calming effect of a week in Ikaria was already gone: they kept checking our tickets, their watches, breathing heavily, and finally decided that we had to go. It was without the slightest sign of guilt that the lady said she couldn't let us leave her cafe hungry, and gave us a bag of delicious sesame bagels and biscuits, for which she refused to take any money.
Ikaria is a Greek island in the Aegean sea
How Ikaria became famous.
Ikaria is a small isolated Greek island, 30 miles off the western coast of Turkey. It looks similar to most Greek islands; except very few people had heard about it, and even less had visited it. Then, recent studies showed that its inhabitants live long, healthy, happy lives. That is, longer, healthier and happier lives than the rest of us. And that's when everybody started trying to discover their secret!
In 2009, a study conducted by the Cardiology Department of the Medical School of Athens showed that about one in three Ikarians lives into his 90s. But it was when the book "The Blue Zones" was published that Ikaria became world famous. According to the author, Dan Buettner, there are five small areas in the world where people live longer; and Ikaria is one of them.
What doesn't kill you makes you stronger?
The inhabitants of Ikaria who lived to be 90 or 100 years old, were born at the beginning of the 20th century. At that time, people had a lower life expectancy than today; they lived 55 years on average. And yet somehow, these Ikarians managed to survive through two World Wars, German and Italian Occupation, a civil war, starvation and harsh poverty. Hard work was always part of their lives, as was tragedy: infant mortality, wounded veterans, economic migrants. Today, the vast majority of them declares to have a very low or insufficient income.
So, living an easy life is definitely not the secret here. But, as any Ikarian would tell you, it's not about having an easy life; it's about knowing how to handle hardships.
Do it like the Ikarians!
Researchers often underline that none of the people of Ikaria who are now over 85, never actually made an effort to live longer. It just happened. It is not clear if it happened due to genetic factors, environmental factors, or a certain lifestyle. However, it is a fact that among the elderly Ikarians there are lower rates of cancer and heart disease and practically no dementia or depression.
But can anyone have such a simple, long, healthy, happy life? There is no point examining the genetic factors; not unless "Marry an Ikarian" becomes the new slogan for a healthy living! Also, it is practically impossible for everyone to move to the 90 sq miles of the island, so let's also leave the environmental factors out of this!
So, what's so special about the lifestyle choices of the Ikarians?
Most Ikarians grow their own vegetables.
Exercise is not a choice in Ikaria. People walk everywhere; and these walks are either uphill or downhill. People also dig the earth, plant vegetables and collect fruit. They also have sex often (but not too often!)
#2 Healthy nutrition
Ikaria has always been an isolated island, so people had to be self sufficient. Their cuisine is merely based on food produced on the island. That is, mostly vegetables, goat milk, red wine and herbs. They also had fish; but not as often as you'd expect. They would occasionally slaughter a pig or goat and have red meat. And of course, everything is cooked in olive oil.
The typical diet of an Ikarian
coffee or herb tea
red wine (1-2 glasses)
#3 Social structure
Elderly people in Ikaria are respected and still included in the community. The family cohesion on the island is strong: most of them have children, grandchildren or great grandchildren actively involved in their lives.
They also have an active social life, talking over a cup of coffee or a game of cards almost daily, and dancing and drinking at weddings or other celebrations. Add this to the completely stress free way of life, in which nobody really needs to know the exact time, and you'll realize that in Ikaria it's not just about living longer, it's about having a better life.
A 2013 documentary about the lifestyle of Ikaria
In search of longevity
A healthy nutrition and daily mild exercise are key factors to good health and longer life. There is nothing new about that. What's most important about these elements is that they are ultimately up to us, it is our choice whether we adopt them or not. But what about the other factors? Can we really live stress free lives in our society? Can we rely on the social cohesion?
At the end of the day, maybe the point is not that the Ikarians hold the secret to a better life. Maybe it's that the rest of us lost it.