Flying Close to the Sun: Greek Islanders’ Secrets to a Long Life




The Greek island Ikaria is known for high life expectancy – one of the highest worldwide. What is the secret of its inhabitants? Myrto Vogiatzi tries to answer this question for Pandeia.

He was 70 years old when he decided to go back to his motherland, Ikaria. He had lived and worked in the United States for decades and felt it was time to enjoy his retirement on an island 30 miles off the Turkish coast. Thirty five years passed by and he was healthy as can be, no one doubted it. No one, except for his insurer who came all the way from the U.S. to see if the severance pay wasn’t being wasted on a dead man. But instead of writing a fraud report, he met a 105 year old man and had a paid holiday to remember.

12059183236_76da822940_bIt’s a story my grandmother told me a few days ago, when I asked her what she thought of all those studies proving that her homeland has the highest percentage of 90 years-olds on the planet. Truth is, she didn’t have any strong opinion on the matter and neither do other island residents. “Longevity happened to these people, they didn’t set out to extend their lives”, says journalist Dan Buettner, author of a book called Blue Zones, which identified longevity hotspots in five areas around the world: Okinawa in Japan, Sardinia in Italy, the Nicoya peninsula in Costa Rica, Loma Linda in California and Ikaria in Greece.

However, it is hard to prove that people live longer in certain areas, since history is peppered with exaggerations of age. Tracking down centenarians isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do, since it requires not only birth and death records but also information on emigration, baptism and military service. How many times have researchers rejected cases of human longevity because residents didn’t know their own age or because the community wasn’t able to provide convincing proof?

The Recipe for Eternal Life

But Ikaria did. In fact, demographic surveys and the University of Athens Ikaria study showed that people there live on average 10 years longer than those in the rest of Europe and America. Not only that, but they are also 20% less likely to get cancer, the population has only half the rate of cardiovascular disease compared to the USA and almost no dementia. The findings, of course, triggered waves of journalists followed by ‘blue zone travellers’ hoping to discover the recipe for eternal life. Questions like: Did you ever smoke?, how much water do you drink?, how quickly can you walk 13 feet? All aimed to reveal the secret elixir.

Unfortunately for us mortals, the key to longevity is no tree of life or magic potion, but the product of a long geographical and historical process. “The most commendable thing on this island is their air and water, both so healthful that people are very long-lived”, had written Joseph Georgirenes, the bishop of Ikaria during the 17th century. And he was right. The island’s reputation as a health destination dates back 25 centuries when Greeks travelled there to soak in the hot springs near Therma. The strong winds and the lack of natural harbours forced it to be self-sufficient, a place where everyone grows their own food and produces their own wine.

Then, in the late 1940’s, after the civil war, thousands of radicals and Communists were exiled to the island, bringing a sense of solidarity between them and its residents. “They risked their lives to be generous to us, something that helped us more than anything to bear the burden of the hardship”, says Mikis Theodorakis, a famous musician who was sent into exile on the island. Nearly 40 per cent of adults still vote for the local Communist Party and, although unemployment is high, almost everyone has access to a family garden and livestock.

It’s this plant-based diet and unprocessed nature of food (Ikarian’s diet includes beans, wild greens, potatoes, olive oil, honey and goat’s milk; two to four glasses of red wine per day, coffee and mountain tea) that promotes longevity, along with regular napping and daily physical activity. I assure you, digging the earth at the age of 95 years old is seen as completely normal; even the notion of time is different. “We wake up late and always take naps”, said Dr. Ilias Leriadis, one of the island’s few physicians, during an interview with a foreign newspaper back in 2009. “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.”.

“And then, there is sex…”

And then there is sex. According to Christina Chrysochoou, a cardiologist at the university’s medical school, 80% of Ikarian men between the age of 65 and 100 are still having sex. It’s already been proven that a little nocturnal action has lifelong benefits, since it reduces stress as well as the risks of cardiovascular diseases and cancer.

But why there? Why Ikaria and not Samos for example, an island just eight miles away, where people breathe the same air and eat fish from the same sea. Are Ikarians blessed with ‘longevity genes’? Or is it just a matter of diet, exercise and sleep? If so, then hurray! All you have to do now is run three miles on the treadmill of your basement every day, buy the most highly recommended organic vegetables and have sex at least twice before a good night’s sleep. Unless the secret is hidden in the context: in the time you take to watch potatoes grow in your own garden, the random conversations you share with your neighbours on a weekday, or the smell of an oak tree tempting you to change paths while running in the forest. No one knows; it is the secret of Ikarian.

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