Greece as a whole isn’t that exceptional when it comes to life expectancy, but the Greek island of Ikaria in the Aegean sea is similar to Sardinia and Okinawa with its exceptionally large number of centenarians.
Chatting to locals on the plane the following day, I learn that several have relations who are centenarians. One woman says her aunt is 111. The problem for demographers with such claims is that they are often very difficult to stand up. Going back to Methuselah, history is studded with exaggerations of age. In the last century, longevity became yet another battleground in the cold war. The Soviet authorities let it be known that people in the Caucasus were living deep into their hundreds. But subsequent studies have shown these claims lacked evidential foundation.
Since then, various societies and populations have reported advanced ageing, but few are able to supply convincing proof. “I don’t believe Korea or China,” Buettner says. “I don’t believe the Hunza Valley in Pakistan. None of those places has good birth certificates.”
However, Ikaria does. It has also been the subject of a number of scientific studies. Aside from the demographic surveys that Buettner helped organise, there was also the University of Athens’ Ikaria Study. One of its members, Dr Christina Chrysohoou, a cardiologist at the university’s medical school, found that the Ikarian diet featured a lot of beans and not much meat or refined sugar. The locals also feast on locally grown and wild greens, some of which contain 10 times more antioxidants than are found in red wine, as well as potatoes and goat’s milk.
Chrysohoou thinks the food is distinct from that eaten on other Greek islands with lower life expectancy. “Ikarians’ diet may have some differences from other islands’ diets,” she says. “The Ikarians drink a lot of herb tea and small quantities of coffee; daily calorie consumption is not high. Ikaria is still an isolated island, without tourists, which means that, especially in the villages in the north, where the highest longevity rates have been recorded, life is largely unaffected by the westernised way of living.”
But she also refers to research that suggests the Ikarian habit of taking afternoon naps may help extend life. One extensive study of Greek adults showed that regular napping reduced the risk of heart disease by almost 40%. What’s more, Chrysohoou’s preliminary studies revealed that 80% of Ikarian males between the ages of 65 and 100 were still having sex. And, of those, a quarter did so with “good duration” and “achievement”. “We found that most males between 65 and 88 reported sexual activity, but after the age of 90, very few continued to have sex.”
Here is another interesting article about Ikarian longevity: The Island Where People Forget to die.
I wonder how much of this longevity could be due to fasting, which many Greek Orthodox Christians practice. This means what is essentially a vegetarian or near vegan diet during much of the year. According to Effects of Greek Orthodox Christian Church fasting on serum lipids and obesity:
Adherence to Greek Orthodox fasting periods contributes to a reduction in the blood lipid profile including a non-significant reduction in HDL cholesterol and possible impact on obesity.
Of course, this probably isn’t that important of a factor in Ikaria’s longevity, since a lot of people fast in the rest of Greece. Now if only Greeks could cut back on their high smoking rate, their life expectancy would be greatly improved.