Ilha Ikaria

Longevity secrets from the island of Ikaria

For the past decade, the National Geographic Society has supported research that has looked for pockets of the longest-living societies in the world, and then, trying to discover their secrets. Why do they live longer, healthier lives?

And one of these so-called “Blue Zones” is the small (256 square kilometers) island of Ikaria, in the Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey, and home to 10,000 Greeks. The Ikarians reach the age of 90 at a rate 2.5 times that of the U.S., often still healthy. Age-related cancers and heart disease tend to develop a decade later than in Western cultures. Ikarian elderly rarely complain of loneliness or depression, and suffer dementia only one-fourth as often as the elderly in the U.S. (despite living longer).

The Blue Zones, Second Edition: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest will be published November 6 by National Geographic. Science writer Dan Buettner focuses on Ikaria, along with some other “Blue Zones” in Costa Rica and Okinawa, and a report of his major findings appeared in the New York Times Magazine October 24, 2012.

You can buy the book or read the article for more details, but here are some of the hints he collected from the Ikarians:

1) They wake up late, and most of them take naps late in the afternoon.

A 2008 paper by the University of Athens Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health studied more than 23,000 Greek adults, and found that occasional napping decreased the risk of cardiovascular disease by 12%, and napping at least 3 times per week decreased the risk by 37%.

2) There is a strong feeling of community.

“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.”

3) They have lots of sex.

80% of the men between age 65 and 100 report that they have sex regularly.

4) They eat only ¼ the amount of refined sugar consumed in the U.S.

…but consider local honey a panacea for many ailments, and for many, breakfast consists of goat’s milk yogurt and honey.

5) Even if they “retire” from a regular job, they keep busy in old age

…with lots of walking “it’s hard to get through the day in Ikaria without walking up 20 hills”, and have a purpose in their life no matter how old they are. Whether they manage an afternoon poker table, a large garden, or a small tourist hotel, they don’t sit around much. Rather than being hidden, in Ikaria the elderly are valued, and they keep contributing no matter their age.

6) They eat fish at least twice a week

…and not so much meat. They prefer goat’s milk, which they find easier to digest.

7) They consume lots of olive oil

…particularly unheated. Olive oil helps decrease the level of “bad” cholesterol and increases the good.

8) Daily red wine.

Many consume 2 to 4 glasses per day, but remember, they are not sitting around for hours drinking; they drink intermittently throughout the day smaller amounts between exercise and healthy eating.

9) Most drink 2 to 3 cups of coffee daily.

10) They eat fresh vegetables from their gardens daily

…and besides greens, they consume lots of anti-oxidant rich legumes (beans). They brew fresh teas from a variety of herbs such as mint and rosemary.

Finally, consider one of the conclusions of the author Buettner: “For people to adopt a healthful lifestyle, I have become convinced, they need to live in an ecosystem, so to speak, that makes it possible. As soon as you take culture, belonging, purpose or religion out of the picture, the foundation for long healthy lives collapses.”

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