Picture yourself hiking to your neighbor’s house, where you’ll meet to have lunch: a spread of homegrown olives, freshly made hummus, and a thick loaf of warm bread – all slathered in just pressed olive oil. You arrive at who knows what time (because nobody watches the clock here), bearing homemade wine and honey from your own bees out back. After hours of conversation over delicious food and warming wine, you’ll hike back home for a midday nap before you tend to the garden to pick wild greens for tonight’s main dinner dish. Oh and one more thing, this otherwise normal, sun-soaked day happens to be the start of your 100th year.
The scenario above takes place in Ikaria, a small Greek island in the Aegean Sea, and the newest addition to “The Blue Zones” – regions in the world identified as having very high life expectancies and rates of centenarians significantly higher than the rest of the developed world. Ikaria joined Okinawa, Japan, Sardinia, Italy, Loma Linda, California, and Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica as the fifth Blue Zone in 2010. Naturally, these areas have the rest of us wondering, “What is the secret?” Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who Lived the Longest, recruited teams of scientists and experts to travel around the world in an attempt to find the secret to a happy, healthy, and long life.
Let’s zone in on the most recent discoveries in Ikaria, “The island where people forget to die.”
It started with a team of researchers from the University of Athens, School of Medicine, who set out to explore the demographic, psychological, and lifestyle characteristics of the very old (>80) in Ikaria. They recruited 1420 men and women over the age of 30, and 187 or 13% of them fell into the very old (>80) age category. Considering the 1% of very old individuals in the total human population, this 13% raised eyebrows of the individuals seeking the next Blue Zone. Although we cannot directly compare these numbers due to sampling limitations, they decided to see if they were really on to something and delve deeper into the Ikarian recipe for longevity.
While most elderly Ikarians (>80) haven’t been hitting the gym on a regular basis throughout their lives, physical activity has been a relatively constant component of a normal day, whether that means trekking through hills to get to town or tending to the garden. Men appeared to be slightly more active than women – 9 out of 10 males reported daily activities versus 7 out of 10 females. In the older than 90 group, 6 out of 10 individuals were still physically active (higher than the rates of a broader Greek study). So we know we’re not dealing with any couch potatoes here, but what else keeps Ikarians kickin’ for 100 years?
Does the secret lie within their diet? This is a fair question to ask, considering that aspects of diet have been shown to reduce the risk of various chronic diseases and improve the health status of those already diagnosed. So, what have the “very old” been eating and drinking all of their lives? It looks like on average they’re sipping on about 5 ounces of alcohol (usually homemade “Pramnian” wine), a cup and a half of coffee, and 3/4 cup of tea each day. Analysis at the University of Athens showed that the 5 most common teas contained herbs that are mild diuretics, raising the sneaky suspicion that they could contribute to Ikarian longevity by lowering blood pressure. The typical Ikarian diet was similar to the Meditterranean Diet, with the following approximated consumption of food groups in grams/day: vegetables & salads (281 g), fruits (118 g), legumes (85 g), potatoes (73 g), meat (53 g), olive oil (49 g), fish (48 g), sweets (40.1 g), pasta/rice (40 g), and cereal (9 g). Fresh produce, commonly homegrown, makes up a large portion of what these individuals consume day in and day out. In addition, the Ikarian elders have been consuming herbal teas on a regular basis for most of their lives. In contrast, the typical Western diet corresponds to high consumption of red meat, processed meat, refined grains, french fries, sweets, and desserts. The latter diet when compared to the Mediterranean way of eating has been associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) mortality, as well as total mortality. Nutrition could be tacking some years on, but is it the only player in the game of life?
Turns out, researchers speculate that you could follow the Mediterranean Diet to a tee and still fall short of 100 years. Dan Buettner and the Blue Zone team believe that there are more ingredients in the recipe that you can’t find in a cook book. Instead, you’re more likely to find this secret “spice” around a dinner table with friends and family. Constant and consistent social interaction is a commonality among all of the longest living regions. The oldest of the old put family and friends top on their priority lists, and consider social interaction a solid component of their daily routine. A quote taken from an Ikarian interview in Dan Buettner’s The Blue Zones wraps up this concept quite well:
“You asked me about food, and yes, we do eat better here than in America. But it’s more about how we eat. Even if it’s your lunch break from work, you relax and enjoy your meal. You enjoy the company of whoever you are with. Food here is always enjoyed in combination with conversation.”
So, maybe it’s something with the lifestyle? 84 percent of the Ikarian elderly men took midday naps, while 67 percent of the women engaged in a little afternoon shut-eye. Researchers have associated a “regular” nap (3 times a week for about 30 minutes) with lower coronary mortality, but this might not be the only perk that nappers could benefit from. Those that took a regular snooze also have lower Geriatric Depression Scale (GDS) scores than those that stayed awake all day long.
The people of Ikaria and the rest of the Blue Zones are doing something right, we know that for sure. But if you were looking for a secret tea or some other mythical concoction that will stop aging dead in its tracks, I’m sorry to disappoint you. A long and healthy life requires a combination of environmental, physiological, and psychological factors, and while researchers and explorers may think that they have identified some of the crucial components, there’s still a lot that we have to figure out. Until then, I’m sure it couldn’t hurt to step back and evaluate the way you live. Could you add a quick nap in right after work? Could you walk to lunch with a coworker, instead of driving somewhere solo? Or maybe even score the furthest parking spot at the grocery store so you have to walk a little further to get to the door. Who knows, it could mean a few extra days, weeks, months, or even years added to your life. Personally, I’d say it’s worth trying.
*The longevity lessons learned from Ikaria and the other Blue Zones are now being applied in public health interventions to help cities become happier and healthier. Check out the Iowa and Minnesota Projects!