Ikaria, a beautiful island located in the eastern Aegean, may look similar to any number of other Greek islands, but there is one vital difference: people there live much longer than the population on the mainland — or even on other Greek islands.
In fact, people there live on average ten years longer than those in the rest of Europe and America. Approximately one in three Ikarians lives into their nineties.
And they not only live longer, but better as well, at least where it concerns their health. According to scientific studies, the island dwellers also have much lower rates of cancer and heart disease, suffer significantly less depression and dementia, maintain their sex lives into old age and remain physically active well into their nineties.
Ikaria, which is named after Icarus, the young man in Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun and plunged into the sea, is one of the five so-called “Blue Zones,” a name given to five regions in the world where people routinely surpass average global life expectancies.
The other areas are Sardinia, Okinawa, Japan, Nicoya, in Costa Rica, and Loma Linda, in California, in the US.
There are secrets to the longevity of the islanders that scientists have tried to discover over the last several years. One factor which all researchers seem to agree on is their diet, characterized by simplicity and natural ingredients, following what is generally known as the Mediterranean Diet.
The diet includes olive oil, the most common source of monounsaturated fatty acids, which is also rich in antioxidants. The oil has been proven to have cardioprotective properties and to contribute significantly to the increase of “good” HDL cholesterol.
Vegetables are also prominent in the Mediterranean diet. Rich in water, which hydrates the body, they are also excellent sources of vitamins and minerals, which are needed to boost the immune system.
Garlic is known to protect both cardiac and brain cells. Ubiquitous in this diet, and traditionally known as an elixir of youth, garlic actually detoxifies and strengthens the immune system. Eaten regularly, it can lower cholesterol and blood pressure and deter the formation of blood clots.
Omega-3 fatty acids and fish are perhaps the ace in the hole of the Mediterranean diet. Sardines, salmon, herring, and trout are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids and are cardioprotective.
They are known to help lower triglyceride levels in the blood and are essential to the operation and development of the nervous system. They are even believed to deter the development of degenerative dementia.
Nuts, including almonds and walnuts, are common in the diet of these areas. All tree nuts are rich in gamma-tocopherol and vitamin E, which help regulate the levels of lipids, lowering levels of LDL cholesterol to prevent clogging of the arteries by plaque formation.
Whole grains are better in general than processed cereals because they retain more of their nutritional value. Wholegrain breads, pasta and rice can easily be added to any diet, and they can have a protective effect against various types of cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Diet is an important, but not the sole, factor, affecting the lifespan of Ikarians in particular. Research has shown that there are other factors which lead to their longevity.
- Good physical condition, due to daily exercise as a result of manual labor and rural living. The walking which Ikarians do on a daily basis, combined with the mountainous topography of the island, enhances good physical condition.
- The Mediterranean midday rest, even including a short nap, has been proven to protect and improve cardiac function.
- Emotional attachments to others, including the strong family and social ties between Ikarian people, have been proven to increase the lifespan of older people.
- The relaxed pace of daily life, without anxiety and stress, and living lives full of optimism, has also been known to add to longevity.
In a recent interview with the BBC, retired doctor Christodoulos Xenakis spoke about how Ikarians avoid unnecessary anxiety in their lives.
“No one really sets appointments here,” one island resident stated. The concept of time is an important part of life on Ikaria, Xenakis explained, but not in the way most people think. “It’s more like ‘See you in the morning, afternoon or evening,’” the doctor explains. “We don’t stress.”
Watch a 2013 BBC documentary on the Ikaria phenomenon below: