Does a Greek Island Harbor the Secret to Longevity?
At first glance, Ikaria may seem like the typical Greek island with its
mountainous landscape, pebble coves and pristine beaches washed by the
blue-green Aegean Sea. But the similarity ends there because the people of
Ikaria can lay claim to being one of five populations in the world where
people live much longer than average.
One in three Ikarians lives into his or her 90s, reaching that decade at
two and a half times the rate of Americans. Furthermore, Ikarians live
eight to 10 years longer before fatal bouts with cardiovascular disease or
cancer, and experience less depression and only 25 percent the rate of
What is their secret? As with many situations that defy the general rule,
there’s no single differentiator, but rather a combination of several
factors. And these factors are as powerful as they are simple.
Renowned chef and cookbook author Diane Kochilas
(right) is a native New Yorker whose family roots are in Ikaria. Recently,
she made a celebrity chef appearance at a Boston Public Market
demonstration co-sponsored by the
at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and the American Heart Association.
This host of a popular Greek television cooking show says that simple,
seasonal, unrefined foods are at the heart of the Greek and Mediterranean
“Many Ikarians have year-round gardens and also forage for wild foods,”
Kochilas says. “Savory herbs, nutritionally packed edible weeds — it’s a
much healthier, genuine relationship with food versus the unlimited choice
of over-processed foods typically found in the Western diet.”
Eating Naturally and Simply
Dr. John Markis
is a CardioVascular Institute cardiologist who annually visits Crete,
another Greek island where his father and all his ancestors were born.
Crete, like Ikaria, is “an agrarian society and they still take pride in
the foods that they themselves produce,” he
says. “The Mediterranean diet is not one thing in particular. It’s more
about eating naturally and eating simply and being satisfied with that.
It’s about living off the land in many ways.”
Markis (right) pointed out that genetics probably has something to do with
the longevity of the inhabitants of these islands. He also suspects the
impact of very high consumption of olive oil in Greece and other
Mediterranean countries, where the diet has similar characteristics though
with countless local variations.
Markis, who recently obtained dual citizenship of Greece and his native
United States, describes a mouth-watering Mediterranean-style meal during
his most recent visit that included pork from a family-raised pig, beans
from the garden, hand-gathered land snails, egg lemon soup, fresh bread,
squid cooked in its own ink and stuffed eggplant with feta.
The Blue Zones: Where Longevity Lives On
Interest in the varied incidence of heart disease in different parts of the
world began with research published in 1966 by the late Ancel Keys, a noted
physiologist who invented the K-Ration, championed the Mediterranean diet
and died at age 100. In a
, he identified Crete as the place with the least heart disease on earth.
In 2004, Dr. Gianni Pes of the University of Sassari in Italy and Dr.
Michel Poulain, a Belgian demographer, published a demographic study that
documented the extreme longevity of inhabitants on yet another
Mediterranean island, Sardinia. Inspired by this work, Dan Buettner, an
American writer, joined forces with the National Geographic Society and the
U.S. National Institute of Aging. This team identified four additional
“Blue Zones,” where people live measurably longer than average lives,
including Ikaria. Over a period of years, they made many trips and
collected data on the five Blue Zone locations.
The Blue Zones are:
The Nuoro province in Sardinia, Italy
Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
An area of Loma Linda, California, where there is a heavy concentration
of Seventh Day Adventists
When Buettner and his team compared lifestyle characteristics in these
places, they determined that the Blue Zones share the following traits:
A mostly plant-based diet, including plenty of legumes (with the
exception of Sardinia)
Moderate physical activity as a constant way of life
Strong community and social ties through all age groups
Consumption of legumes
In his book
The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who've Lived
which Buettner published in 2008, he expands on the shared characteristics
to include: engagement in religion or spirituality, close family ties, a
sense of life purpose, stress reduction practices, moderate alcohol intake
— especially wine — and a low-calorie diet.
All the Ingredients for a Healthier Heart
Unlike the typical Western diet that contains refined grains,
sugar and deep-fried foods, the Mediterranean diet centers around fresh,
unrefined foods. It consists of fewer meats and carbohydrates than the
average American diet, and has more plant-based foods and monounsaturated
(good) fat. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, following a
Mediterranean diet can help stabilize blood sugar and lower cholesterol and
triglycerides, which in turn can lower the risk of heart disease and other
It’s a diet that research suggests can reduce the risk of heart attack and
stroke in people who already have heart disease. A
of more than 22,000 people living in Greece determined that the closer they
followed a traditional Greek diet, the less likely they were to succumb to
heart disease or cancer.
Markis advises his patients to eliminate as much as possible “the four
white foods” — flour, sugar, rice and potatoes, and to adopt a diet that
emphasizes proteins, especially plant-based sources such as beans and
“It’s not that they shouldn’t have the four white foods ever again,” Markis
says. “But they need to be cut back. Otherwise, it will be difficult to
control weight and blood sugar levels.”
Go With the Flow — But Not Alone
While the American Heart Association acknowledges that the incidence of
heart disease and the overall death rate is lower in Mediterranean
countries than in the United States, it doesn’t attribute this to diet
alone. As confirmed by the research of Pes and Poulain, lifestyle factors
such as greater physical activity and extended social support systems seem
to play a part as well.
Indeed, Ikarians live a laidback lifestyle with little need for modern
contraptions — and that includes clocks. People wake up naturally, tend to
their gardens and eat a late lunch followed by a nap. In the evenings, they
gather with neighbors and often socialize late into the night.
The connection between strong social ties and longevity has been confirmed
in dozens of studies that show people who have positive relationships with
family, friends and community. Scientists have found that strong social
connections help relieve high levels of stress that can negatively affect
coronary arteries, insulin regulation, gut function and the immune system.
Ikaria’s geography lends itself to natural physical activity.
From garden chores to walking along the hilly terrain to meeting up with
neighbors, physical activity is organically built into the daily routine.
Instead of slumping on the couch every evening in front of a television
screen or a laptop, Ikarians gather to share food, wine, music, traditional
dancing and conversation.
Wait — Did You Say Wine?
Though it may seem counterintuitive to mention “alcohol” and “healthy
heart” in the same sentence, research supports what many centenarians have
claimed over the years — that a daily glass or two of wine can be a
According to the American Heart Association, moderate amounts of alcohol
raise levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good” cholesterol) that
are associated with greater protection against heart disease. Moderate
alcohol consumption has also been associated with health benefits ranging
from improved insulin sensitivity to factors that influence blood clotting.
Additionally in the case of wine, flavonoids and other antioxidant
substances found in grape skin can help protect the heart and vessels from
free radical damage.
Lessons from the Old World
Wish to live the healthier life of an Ikarian, but not ready to dust off
your passport? Fortunately, there are some simple changes you can make
right now that can have a positive impact on your wellness. One place to
start is by reading Kochilas’ book,
Ikaria: Lessons on Food, Life and Longevity from the Greek Island Where
People Forget to Die
, which contains information about the lifestyle and recipes.
Try to incorporate fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables into your diet,
and opt for whole grains, which are high in cholesterol-lowering fiber,
according the American Heart Association. Choose fish and poultry over red
meat whenever possible, and use monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats
such as olive oil when cooking and preparing foods.
Cultivate supportive relationships and try trading FaceTime for face time.
According to the American Psychological Association, even though people are
more connected to one another than ever before via social networking sites
and text messaging, they also more isolated and lonely once they step away
from the computer or smartphone.
Be mindful of making physical activity a part of your daily routine. Go for
a walk in the fresh air and take the stairs instead of the elevator. And
when life inevitably gets busy, smell the roses, visit a friend, dance into
the night and sip an occasional glass of wine.
Above content provided by the CardioVascular Institute at Beth Israel
Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult