For the longest time, there has been nothing but bad news coming from Greece: An economy in complete shambles, high unemployment, drastic tax hikes and cutbacks in social services, unrest in the streets, a society at the brink of collapse. And yet it is precisely in this region where people seem to live longer, healthier lives than about anywhere else on the planet. What’s their secret?
Based on years of research, Dan Buettner, best-selling author of “The Blue Zones: Lessons in Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest” (National Geographic Society, 2008), and two of his colleagues found that the inhabitants of the Greek island of Ikaria were reaching the age of 90 at two and a half times the rate Americans do.
“Ikarian men in particular are nearly four times as likely as their American counterparts to reach 90, often in better health. But more than that, they were also living about 8 to 10 years longer before succumbing to cancers and cardiovascular disease, and they suffered less depression and about a quarter the rate of dementia.” By contrast, Buettner says, almost half of American seniors show signs of Alzheimer’s by the age of 85.
Despite of its remoteness and rugged, mountainous landscape, the island has been known for centuries for its health-promoting climate and soothing hot springs. A slow-pace, leisurely lifestyle is still prevalent among the people here who savor tasty meals and long afternoon naps. Time seems to stand still – most villagers don’t even wear watches.
Many of the young people who once left the island in search of better paying jobs in the cities have returned, disillusioned with their fading prospects. Because of high unemployment rates, some have no choice but to move back in with parents and grandparents, but others see the lifestyle of their forbearers as a viable alternative.
Besides tourism, small-scale agriculture is the only industry on Ikaria. When it comes to food supply, most families are self-sufficient. Gardening and tending to livestock fills the day that starts late in the morning and ends with dining and socializing with family, neighbors and friends.
The latter is as crucial as the diet the Ikarians adhere to. The social structures might turn out to be even more important, says Buettner. The cultural attitude that honors and celebrates old age keeps seniors more engaged in their communities. Studies have shown that the concept of retirement, common in industrialized countries, actually reduces life expectancy. Such “artificial punctuations” in life, as he calls it, deprive retirees unnecessarily of a sense of purpose and meaningful existence.
Another puzzling phenomenon is that Ikarians also live longer than other islanders in the region who share a comparable environment. Obviously it’s not one specific thing that sets these people apart, says Buettner, but rather a host of “subtly powerful, mutually enhancing and pervasive factors are at work” such as a healthy diet, sufficient sleep, lack of stress and time pressure, daily physical activity through walking and manual labor, and being part of a functional community. In other words, it’s the high quality of life that results in the extraordinary longevity.
Obviously, not everyone can move to an idyllic island and grow vegetables, milk goats, bake bread and snooze the afternoon away. But what we all can do is to stop once in a while and consider whether our days really have to be as hectic and exhausting as they often are. Perhaps we would be better off if we took regularly inventory and separated what’s necessary from what just crept in on us.
We don’t have to aim at living forever. Longevity itself doesn’t have to be the primary goal. Being around a few years longer is not worth the effort if we’re only getting more of the same. A better quality of life, on the other hand, is something we can always strive for at any time and anywhere.
Timi Gustafson RD, LDN, is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun,” which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter (http://twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD) and on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/TimiGustafsonRD).