Lifestyles and Longevity

Author: S. Bledsoe, M.D.

In 1513, Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon went searching for the Fountain of Youth.  He never found the legendary fountain, but his expeditions did earn him a poisoned arrow in the thigh.  He later died of his wounds at the age of 46- just a little shy of his goal of eternal youth.  Although Ponce de Leon was searching for a legend, there have been a number of cultural pockets that seem to have found a way to increase their longevity.  One such culture is on the little island of Ikaria


Ikaria is a 100 square mile Greek island located in the Aegean Sea.  The island is named after Icarus in Greek mythology who fell into the sea near the island.  It had been a part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries until 1912 when the little island expelled the Turks and joined with Greece.  It has been known for many things- thermal springs, red wine, and the slow pace of life.  Recently, it is known for the longevity of its roughly 8000 permanent residents.


“The Island Where People Forget to Die” appeared in the New York Times recently.  In analyzing their lifestyles, there were several things that were identified as reasons why the Ikarians live longer than you and me.


Diet was identified as a big variable.  This should come as no surprise to anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock.  Beans, vegetables, olive oil, coffee, and goat’s milk were all staples in the Ikarian diet.  Most of the people grow their own vegetables and even herd their own goats.  I tried to find out if there was a McDonald’s on the island.  I was unable to confirm the presence of the Golden Arches in Ikaria.  If this information makes it back to McDonald’s HQ, I have no doubt that silly clown will be traipsing all over the island ruining the culture.   The local beverages of “mountain tea” and red wine also figured prominently into the narrative.  Both drinks are locally made.  It is interesting to see the number of healthy cultures that drink herbal teas and moderate amount of red wine.


Possibly the thing I found most interesting was that the Ikarians love an afternoon nap.  When I was a kid, I would have preferred being water-boarded than to take an afternoon nap.  Fast-forward to today, my Sunday afternoon is incomplete if I can’t catch at least 30 extra minutes of sleep.  I would love to have an afternoon siesta, but it seems that the American lifestyle, my job, and napping are antithetical.  Of historical interest, there are many famous men who insisted on afternoon naps- Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Napolean Bonaparte, Thomas Edison, and Stonewall Jackson.  In 2007, The Archives of Internal Medicine published an article that demonstrated that afternoon naps were associated with 37% fewer cardiac deaths in men.  So next time you’re caught sleeping on the job, tell your boss you are trying to decrease your likelihood of dying from a cardiac event.  Let me know how it goes.

In contrast to most of us, the Ikarians are not slaves to the clock like Americans.  No one wears a watch there.  A lunch date could take place somewhere between 11:00 and 4:00.  The pace of life here is just a fraction of what it is elsewhere.  This reminded me a little of Hawaii where the islanders were on “island time.”  Meaning, a scheduled time was more of a range than an actual point in time.  The pace in Ikaria is at a snails-pace when compared to the frenetic lifestyles of most Americans.


Lastly, the people of Ikaria have strong social ties to their community.  They enjoy getting together and passing the time by telling stories and drinking the local teas and red wine.  Every holiday and religious event is an excuse to get together as a community and celebrate.  These strong familial ties and friendships certainly add to their longevity.  In his book “The Survivors Club,” Ben Sherwood documents that one the “X-factors” that helps people survive serious physical traumas is close relationships with family and friends.  There is something that can’t be quantified that positively effects our well-being when we have close relationships.  As Mr. Sherwood states, “there is something powerful about family and friendships.”

All of these things add up to a single common denominator- less stress.  It has been known for a long time that excessive stress wasn’t good, but only recently, we have been discovering just how detrimental excessive stress can be for your health.  Excess stress can decrease immunity, increase rates of atherosclerosis, encourage insulin resistance and obesity, diminish HDL cholesterol, cause depression, manifest as sleep disorders and chronic pain, and contribute to overall poor health.  What do experts suggest doing to alleviate stress?  Slow down, eat well, and spend time with family and friends are all good suggestions.  Sounds like the Ikarians have nailed it!


We Americans could take some cues from the long-living Ikarians.  A healthy diet, a little extra rest, a less rigidly scheduled life, and strong relationships are things we could strive for on a daily basis.  Even if these things don’t improve your longevity, your life would likely be more enjoyable and a lot less stressful.

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