Ikaria is a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, just off of the western coast of Turkey. It’s a warm hilly island covered in vegetable gardens, vineyards, olive groves, and a bizarrely disproportionate number of really, really old people.
I’d never heard of Ikaria before I read this fascinating New York Times Magazine piece. Part ethnography, part history, part aging study, and part dietary guide, the article explores why residents of Ikaria are living so long.
Ikarians reach the age of 90 years old two and a half times more often than Americans. Even more perplexingly, Ikarians live eight to ten years longer before succumbing to cancers, cardiovascular diseases, depression, and Alzheimer’s.
The island is pretty small — only 99 square miles, and is home to about 10,000 people — and compared to some of the other nearby Greek islands, like the tourist hot spot Samos, it’s relatively undeveloped.
In contrast to Samos’ million euro villas and high rise resorts, most Ikarians live in small cottages, and are nearly self sufficient. Although the island has an alarming unemployment rate of 40%, just about everyone has what they need to survive, because just about every home has its own vegetable garden and a small number of livestock.
And when you don’t have enough for yourself, your neighbor will step in and help you out. The communal, relaxed nature of the island described in the article is so appealing and so foreign to anything I’ve experienced here in America.
In speaking to residents of the island, the author found that nearly everybody’s schedule is the same. Wake up naturally, late in the morning (most places aren’t even open before 10 AM), go to work or tend your garden, eat a large lunch, and then take a nap in the afternoon.
I want that.
So why are these people living so much longer, on average, than any of us? This is the question most of the article is devoted to answering, and by consulting a number of studies conducted by the University of Athens’ Medical School as well as qualitative interviews of resident, a number of factors emerged.
Diet seems to be a big factor. A lot of olive oil; wine in moderation; herbal teas from mint, sage, and rosemary that grow wildly on the island; homegrown vegetables and legumes; thick, wheat breads; goat milk; and only small amounts of meat and sugar — these are the staples of an Ikarian diet.
Ikarians don’t make a habit of exercising, but there are a lot of hills on the island, and most people travel by walking.
But diet and exercise are only a small part of the answer. Ikarians are also exceptionally happy, due largely to the reliance on community to survive. Crime is low. Being social and happy greatly increases your lifespan.
But perhaps the most interesting finding is what the author calls “an ecosystem of health” that exists on the island. All of these keys to longevity are part of the island’s culture, so it’s hard to escape them. Sugary foods, meat, high calorie foods, driving, individual isolation — these things are all around us in American culture, and so even if you know what’s healthy, it’s hard to avoid them.
I dare you to read this article and not feel a burning desire to drop out and move there immediately.
By: Mike Gusinger
(Photo by janwilliemsen under a Creative Commons License)