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#593 Greek island where long life is the norm

By Cathryn Wellner / March 1, 2013
Karavostamo on Ikaria

Small village of Karavostamo on the seaside of Ikaria; photo by ArishG, via Wikimedia Commons

People who live on Ikaria, a small, remote Aegean island, 35 miles off the coast of Turkey, enjoy the good life. They eat a Mediterranean diet, drink home-made wine, and spend hours chatting with friends. They live simply, spend a lot of time outdoors, and get plenty of exercise walking up and down the island’s hills. A high percentage live beyond their 100th birthdays, and they have an average life span 10 years higher than other Europeans.

BBC’s Andrew Bomford interviewed the island’s “poster child” for a piece published January 6, 2013, The Greek island of old age. Stamatis Moraitis turned 98 on New Year’s Day 2013. Although born on Ikaria, Stamatis was living in the U.S. when he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Told he had nine months to live, he returned to Ikaria to die. He told Bomford:

I found my friends in the village where I was born, and we started drinking. I thought, at least I’ll die happy.

Every day we got together, we drank wine, and I waited. Time passed by and I felt stronger. Nine months came – I felt good. Eleven months came – I felt better. And now, 45 years later, I’m still here.

Stories like that have drawn scientists and doctors to study the population. They also drew Daily Mail writer Jan Moir. During her visit to the island, she met Evangelia Karnava, born in March 1913. Moir wrote:

She is a firecracker; so full of spirit and fun it is impossible to believe she will be 100 in March. ‘I love your Queen, she had the sense to marry a good Greek man. They are the best in the world! They love women and they love the family,’ she says.

Evangelia walks to the shops every day in her jacket with a smart fur collar. In the bank, she pays her bills with her e-card, she has her own mobile phone and lives a completely independent life.

She thinks one of the secrets to her longevity is that she doesn’t eat red meat. ‘Well I do, but I eat only the fat, not the meat itself,’ she says.

A study published in Cardiology Research and Practice found:

A large proportion of the Ikaria Study’s sample was over the age of 80; moreover, the percent of people over 90 were much higher than the European population average. The majority of the oldest old participants reported daily physical activities, healthy eating habits, avoidance of smoking, frequent socializing, mid-day naps and extremely low rates of depression.

Dan Buettner partnered with National Geographic to study the island as part of his work identifying why people live longer in what he dubbed the world’s Blue Zones. In a piece he wrote for the New York Times, The Island Where People Forget to Die, he said:

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.

If young Ikarians can resist the seductive influence of soda and junk food, both finding their way to the island, they will continue to lead the world in longevity and a kind of high quality of life that does not require big incomes or a lot of possessions.

Blue Zones


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