The Earth has small pockets of communities where people seem to live forever. The world’s oldest women live on the island of Okinawa, some 100,000 metizos in Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula have a lower rate of middle-age mortality, long living Seventh-day Adventists cluster in Loma Linda, California, and the Greek island of Ikaria is home to a high concentration of centenarians. Dan Buettner, the American explorer, spent time in Ikaria looking for the key to their longevity in hope of bringing some of the knowledge back to America.
Ikaria is a small 99-square-mile island in the Aegean Sea named after Ikarus (Icarus). The island sits about 30 miles off the coast of Turkey and is home to 10,000 Greeks. The land has an old tradition of longevity. 2500 years ago, the Greeks would soak in the hot springs near Therma, and in the 17th century Joseph Georgirenes, the Bishop of Ikaria wrote of the land “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.”
Trying to understand the Ikarian people, Buettner spoke to Dr. Ilias Leriadis, an Ikarian physicians. He said:
“People stay up late here. We wake up late and always take naps. I don’t even open my office until 11 a.m. because no one comes before then. Have you noticed that no one wears a watch here? No clock is working correctly. When you invite someone to lunch, they might come at 10 a.m. or 6 p.m. We simply don’t care about the clock here…. Just 15 kilometers over there is a completely different world. There they are much more developed. There are high-rises and resorts and homes worth a million euros. In Samos, they care about money. Here, we don’t. For the many religious and cultural holidays, people pool their money and buy food and wine. If there is money left over, they give it to the poor. It’s not a ‘me’ place. It’s an ‘us’ place.”
Buettner looked into the diets of the Ikarian people expecting to find connections between the food they ate and their increased life expectancies as is common in most populations of the long-living.
Low intake of saturated fats from meat and dairy was associated with lower risk of heart disease; olive oil — especially unheated — reduced bad cholesterol and raised good cholesterol. Goat’s milk contained serotonin-boosting tryptophan and was easily digestible for older people. Some wild greens had 10 times as many antioxidants as red wine. Wine — in moderation — had been shown to be good for you if consumed as part of a Mediterranean diet, because it prompts the body to absorb more flavonoids, a type of antioxidant. And coffee, once said to stunt growth, was now associated with lower rates of diabetes, heart disease and, for some, Parkinson’s. Local sourdough bread might actually reduce a meal’s glycemic load. You could even argue that potatoes contributed heart-healthy potassium, vitamin B6 and fiber to the Ikarian diet. Another health factor at work might be the unprocessed nature of the food they consume: as Trichopoulou observed, because islanders eat greens from their gardens and fields, they consume fewer pesticides and more nutrients. She estimated that the Ikarian diet, compared with the standard American diet, might yield up to four additional years of life expectancy.
In America, a 70-billion dollar diet industry and 20-billion dollar health industry push the population to believe with enough regimented eating and exercise, anyone can expand their life expectancy by a great deal. And while a thread of this is certainly true, there seems to be another dimension to the Ikarian life.
Ask the very old on Ikaria how they managed to live past 90, and they’ll usually talk about the clean air and the wine. Or, as one 101-year-old woman put it to me with a shrug, “We just forget to die.” The reality is they have no idea how they got to be so old. And neither do we.
If you pay careful attention to the way Ikarians have lived their lives, it appears that a dozen subtly powerful, mutually enhancing and pervasive factors are at work. It’s easy to get enough rest if no one else wakes up early and the village goes dead during afternoon naptime. It helps that the cheapest, most accessible foods are also the most healthful — and that your ancestors have spent centuries developing ways to make them taste good. It’s hard to get through the day in Ikaria without walking up 20 hills. You’re not likely to ever feel the existential pain of not belonging or even the simple stress of arriving late. Your community makes sure you’ll always have something to eat, but peer pressure will get you to contribute something too. You’re going to grow a garden, because that’s what your parents did, and that’s what your neighbors are doing. You’re less likely to be a victim of crime because everyone at once is a busybody and feels as if he’s being watched. At day’s end, you’ll share a cup of the seasonal herbal tea with your neighbor because that’s what he’s serving. Several glasses of wine may follow the tea, but you’ll drink them in the company of good friends. On Sunday, you’ll attend church, and you’ll fast before Orthodox feast days. 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.
The way people live on Ikaria is just as important, if not more important than what they eat. The qualities of their life like napping regularly, having plentiful and fulfilling sex, eating a nutritive diet, and socializing regularly are beneficial on their own, but it is the community that does all of the above who lives the longest. This explains why enclaves of long-living populations are found. They all practice a healthy life together and the community reinforces and maintains the quality of living. Without the ecosystem and community native to Ikaria, the health benefits would deteriorate. It is the community that keeps people alive forever.