The New York Times had an intriguing article on longevity in last week's Sunday Magazine (The Body Issue): "The Enchanted Island of Centenarians".
I've read some of this research before. It was done by a group of doctors who have written about the "Blue Zones" around the world. These are areas where people live uncommonly long lives. The authors of the "Blue Zones" study traveled to places like Okinawa, Costa Rica, Loma Linda, CA to see if they could find a common thread among those who lived a long time--their lifestyle, their diet, their genetics, perhaps all three.
Their latest adventure involved a trip to the island of Ikaria, in the Aegean Sea, off the coast of Greece. They found some similarities among long-lived Ikaria inhabitants and other 90-100-year-olds in Japan, Costa Rica and Loma Linda. But there were some interesting differences, too.
Yes, diet and exercise play a role in living a long, healthy life. But not the way you might think. There are several things the Ikarians do that are worth noting.
1) They eat a Mediterranean diet. Lots of olive oil, lots of greens they grow themselves, legumes, a special tea they drink everyday that's full of antioxidants. And they drink a healthy amount of wine. They're also known to have fish several times a week and even meat occasionally. Did I mention the wine? They drink it every day, 2 to 4 glasses.
2) They nap. Yes, they nap every day, too. Even younger Ikarians take an afternoon snooze. The island basically shuts down in the afternoon so people can get in several hours of rest.
3) They don't pay attention to time. They get up when they feel like it, they eat when they're hungry, they might work or dance in the evening, if it suits them. They go to bed when they're tired. No one wears a watch. People don't own clocks.
4) Social interaction is very important. Everyone watches out for everybody else. If you're having a bad day, a friend will come by and cajole you into taking a walk. Family and friends drop in out of the blue, and everyone puts chores aside and sits down for tea and cookies or for wine and a plate of hummus and stone-ground Ikarian bread. No one feels left out.
5) Older people have purpose. Older people play an important role in the community, teaching younger people their culture's traditions, giving advice, integrating themselves into the island's daily life by continuing to grow their own food, attend church, participate in local holiday festivals.
6) Ikarians get exercise; they don't "work out". Ikarians walk everywhere. Up and down hills, out into their gardens, over to a neighbor's house for a meal. Walking is part of their daily routine.
Of course, Ikaria sounds like an idyll to most of us. It's fine for older Ikarians, but could older Americans actually live this way? Could we nap in the afternoons and go through the day without checking our watch, never mind our iPhone? And would we be happy with such a slow-paced lifestyle even it if did increase our longevity? It's hard to know. Our culture is so very different.
But the US is not among the world's leaders in life expectancy despite our medical advances. Maybe incorporating a few of Ikaria's lifestyle habits into our own might make for a healthier older population. Going for a walk every day, making more time for friends, adding more olive oil to our diet, pressing the snooze button in the morning and having a glass of wine with dinner. Even if we didn't live longer, doing these things might just make us happier.
*Note: The second edition of "Blue Zones" by Dan Buettner is due out next month from National Geographic.
*The article about Ikaria (Oct. 28, 2012) is at www.nytimes.com