Friday, 18 January 2013

The quest for long life leads to Ikaria

To my parents, Bohdan (89) and Marysia (85)

Two weeks ago, the BBC's website ran a story about a Greek island, Ikaria, on which longevity was far more prevalent than in the developed world. Two days later, a friend e-mailed me with the same story covered in greater depth three months earlier by the New York Times. The Island Where People Forget to Die is worth reading from end to end.

Essentially, the chances of an Ikarian man of living to 90 are four times higher than in the US. The lifespan of Ikarians is significantly higher than that of the average for Greece. The human lifespan on the neighbouring island of Samos, just 8 miles away, is no greater than the Greek average. Why? In the 17th Century, when Jan III Sobieski was ruling Poland and King Charles I was losing his head, the Bishop of Ikaria mentioned that it was 'ordinary' to see people 100 years of age on the island. This was at a time when the average lifespan was far shorter than it is today.

Scientists have identified Ikaria (along with the Nuoro Valley in Sardinia, Okinawa off Japan, a Seventh-day Adventist population in Loma Linda, California and the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica) as one of five places where abnormally large proportions of the population live to an abnormally old age. They want to know why. The results of scientific studies appeared in the article...

Factors identified on Ikaria:

Diet: Low on meat (five times a month), fish twice a week, plenty of goat's milk, local beans and pulses, greens, local herbs, honey, stone-ground, sour-dough bread, olives, olive oil - and two to three-and-half glasses of wine a day. No herbicides or pesticides. And coffee. What don't they eat? Processed foods, white sugar, white flour.

Exercise: Not the gym - but working in the vineyard and olive groves, growing and harvesting your own food, walking up steep hills.

Sleep: Waking up when you feel like it, napping during the day ("occasional napping was associated with a 12% reduction in the risk of heart disease, while regular napping - at least three days weekly - was associated with a 37% reduction") and staying up late into the night with friends.

Stress: Take it easy, man! No one on Ikaria has a watch, there is little pressure, little stress. That killer hormone cortisol has little reason to course the veins of Ikarians.

Social: Plenty of social interaction - drinking with friends, dominos, dancing, gossiping, laughter. Loneliness is indeed a killer. Contagion by positive examples - the more active, optimistic friends you have, the more active and optimistic you are.

A reason to live: Retirement is only the beginning. The Japanese word 'Ikigai', or "the reason for which you wake up in the morning", a purpose to life, is all important.

Environmental factors: The quality of the air and water is the reasons Ikarians give for their longer lives. Bright sunshine, blue skies, sparkling waves, high air pressure; little of the grey dampness that so often besieges the British Isles... (niskie ciśnienie, Panie...)

Genetics are not mentioned in this piece. But they must be an incredibly important factor (my mother is the youngest of three sisters - all three are alive, aged 85, 88 and 91). I'm sure if the DNA samples of the nonagenerians studied on Ikaria and the other clusters were to be compared, there'd be some interesting results.

Not one of these factors listed above is the single reason they live longer - all these factors, taken together, reinforcing one another, do the trick.

Would you want to live to old age in Ikaria? Or would you find it boring - bereft of the scintillating glamour of city life?

This time last year:
My thoughts on copyright

This time two years ago:
Waiting for the sun

This time three years ago:
From suburban to inter-city

This time four years ago:
Into the trees

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