June 21, 2013 7:05 pm

Live long and prosper

Scientists are trying to understand why residents of the laid-back Greek island of Ikaria enjoy such longevity
Islanders on Ikaria dancing at a panegryi, or local festival, in the village of Monokampi©Edward Webb/Gallery Stock

Islanders on Ikaria dancing at a panegryi, or local festival, in the village of Monokampi

You know a place is laid-back when the only locals in a hurry are the turtles. In a cool stream behind Livadi beach, the little chaps would paddle up really close, pop their heads out of the water, take a look, realise I was a 6ft tall potential predator and then dive under water and swim off as fast as possible.

Otherwise, Ikaria does not do stress. Over the centuries, the 40km-long mountainous island, just west of the Turkish coast, has seen its fair share of pirates and invaders, wars and revolts – even a four-month flirtation with independence from Greece in 1912. But, in recent years, it has become known as a place of peaceful, pastoral mores and long-lived locals. An Ikarian is two and a half times more likely to reach the age of 90 than an American, and, on average, Ikarians live 10 years longer than other Europeans.

Map: Greek islands

For the past four years, a team from the University of Athens Medical School has been visiting Ikaria, drawing blood and studying the islanders’ lifestyles to find out the key to their longevity. They have already reported in scholarly reviews on the Ikarian diet, coffee consumption and testosterone levels and were back on the island this month for the latest stage of their research. Of course, a lot of the magic might be trapped inside the islanders’ genes, but perhaps there’s something in that Ikarian lifestyle, or food, or drink, or something in the very air, that can rub off on visitors.

Getting there was an odyssey. Given the distance, it should take three and a bit hours from London. It took 15. Ikaria has some domestic flights from Athens but no international airport, so our journey involved a flight to the island of Samos, a bus to the port, then a slow ferry from Samos to Ikaria, stopping at the island of Fourni on the way. The wisest move is to treat the voyage as a sort of mini-cruise. My girlfriend and I kicked back on the deck – June is early in the season, so there was plenty of space – and enjoyed frappés and the bright blue Aegean. It was dark when we docked but after a short transfer by minibus – the clock now nudging 11pm – we were eating garlicky melitzanosalata (aubergine dip) and moussaka and drinking red wine overlooking the tiny port of Armenistis.

We woke up at the stylish, clifftop Erofili Beach Hotel to a cloudless sky, a breakfast of fruit, pine honey and Greek yoghurt, and three empty beaches within walking distance. Armenistis is a tranquil base for a holiday. Like most Mediterranean islanders, Ikarians have historically lived away from the coast, where the land is better, the air cooler and where pirates are less likely to steal your daughter/goat/gold. The port is used by a few local fishermen but is essentially a place to eat, sleep and relax.

One of Ikaria’s beaches©Corbis

One of the island’s beaches

Once we’d met the turtles and had a swim, we joined local guide and painter Rania Mytika and took a hired jeep into the highlands. The road was a series of hairpins, winding up through rocky, arid ground to a high mountain plateau.

We stopped at Christos Raches, a town famous on the island for its nocturnal habits. Some 1,000 people (an eighth of Ikaria’s population) live in or around the town and on Fridays and Saturdays, and during panegyri (festivals), it’s a community hub.

“Because so many people are farmers or smallholders and have to work late, they tend to socialise after 10pm,” said Rania. “People meet, as elsewhere in Greece, at the local kafeneio [café] but on Ikaria it’s not just for men or for a certain age group. The community organises everything, and everyone is invited. You won’t see old grannies in black on Ikaria but you will see them chatting to young people, even in clubs playing rock music.

“This social mixing helps prevent loneliness and depression. No one on Ikaria has panic attacks – except me, but I’m an artist!”

I counted at least six cafés on the tiny main street. We sat outside one and ordered spinach and fennel pie and sweet pastries made by a local women’s co-operative. We were joined by Dinos Petrogiannis, a 90-year-old intellectual and one of the 30,000 communists sent into island exile during the 1946-1949 civil war.

“I came here in 1947, so I suppose that makes me half an Ikarian,” he said. “There is very little stress here – what is there to get stressed about? The key to long life on Ikaria is that there is no key. The door here is always left open.”

Crime is very low on the island. The open doors reflect that, and the Ikarians are very welcoming; wherever we went, we were plied with food and drink, and made to feel at home. Also, life is lived outside, with even the “retired” islanders kept busy collecting grapes, herding their animals, and growing herbs. Walk anywhere and you are greeted by the aroma of wild fennel, sage and rosemary.

Well-signposted trails lead out of Christos Raches into the mountains. We set off on a hike to work up an appetite and soon found ourselves walking along an aqueduct in a terrain of shade-giving oaks, cedars and pines. Winter rains and even snow nourish the highlands and allow the cultivation of fruit trees, crops and vines. We saw hives on most farms; Ikarian bees gather nectar from oregano and thyme plants and their honey is prized.

At the top of the island was a wide plateau, where seismic events have left behind spectacularly deformed granite outcrops and huge boulders that seem to have been arranged in artful piles. To the sound of tinkling bells – the goats and sheep wary of any human presence – we hiked to the summit and could see the sheer cliffs of the island’s wild southern edge.

If the hilltop trip was hyperactive, the lunch that followed back in Armenistis was indulgently Ikarian. We arrived at 2pm at a restaurant called Baido but it looked as if there was no one there. Rania found the owner, Marianthi Politi, and after a quick chat, she decided there was some food. I was asked to help myself to drinks from a wine barrel while Rania assisted with the cooking. “It’s often like this on Ikaria,” she said. “It’s completely normal to go into the kitchen and help the cook.”

While we waited, we had fresh bread dipped in olive oil, oregano and wine – an Ikarian staple popular at breakfast. Then came Greek salad, with huge slabs of feta, artichoke hearts, home-made chips and fresh sardines. Once it was served, Marianthi announced she was going for a siesta. We were to eat at our leisure and put the plates back in the kitchen for washing later.

Scientists are still making their mind up about the Ikarian secret. Dr Christina Chrysohoou, a cardiologist and member of the research group, says: “Ikarians consume lots of greens – some of them local and found only on the island – as well as legumes, goats’ cheese and milk; most consume one to two small cups of Greek boiled coffee and local herbs in the morning and after their siesta; they sleep seven hours a day and one hour at noon. But the most important thing that you see is that they consume small quantities of food in each serving; in that way they take in much lower calories than we do, although they are at least moderately active as they walk a lot every day.”

Keeping active seems to be key. Nikos Politis, a chef, joked with me that “Ikarians aren’t afraid of death, they are afraid of the bed – they would prefer to die standing up doing something they love!”

Nikos and his father, Theodosis, a sprightly 67-year-old former chef for the Intercontinental Hotel Group, run Filitsa, possibly Ikaria’s finest restaurant, on the mountain behind Christos Raches. Nikos served us a salad of iron-rich amaranth leaves, home-made goats’ cheese and tomatoes and a slow-cooked lamb stew with potatoes and carrots, while we swapped longevity theories.

Theodosis said the local wine might do the trick: “Many Ikarians make their own wine and drink a glass every day. They drink it carefully, mixing it with water in a tradition that goes back to the classical symposiums. It’s to make people talk, not to get drunk. We also don’t add preservatives.”

Whatever the combination of factors, it seems to work. Stamatis Moraitis was an Ikarian living in the US who, when diagnosed with cancer 45 years ago, returned to Ikaria to die. He passed away three months ago, aged 102.

Ikaria is definitely different. The island has no natural ports, which has kept it apart from the rest of Greece. Its language is said to be akin to classical Greek in terms of rhythm and pronunciation. Musicologists say its folk music is the closest to Greek classical music. Villages are spread out and the roads are poor; public transport is almost non-existent. Time – like the ferry – moves slowly.

It isn’t for everyone. “Some Athenians hate the lazy, rebellious lifestyle of Ikarians and want to get back on the next boat,” said Rania. “The rest love it and want to become like locals. We have 80 per cent repeat visitors – so most must love it.”

We did. On our way home, we stopped at Samos, partly to break the journey into easier stages, but also to compare islands. The food here was great, the wine perhaps better, the sea clean and clear, the people friendly. But there were also expats, fast drivers and people discussing economics and the cancellation this year of flights from Manchester. In Ikaria, you are allowed – invited, in fact – to forget mobile phones, WiFi, timetables, worries at home and the euro crisis. In Samos, you’re half-way back to reality, and all you can do is dive under water and swim off as fast as possible.

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More places where people linger longer: Where to sample the good life

Okinawa, Japan The residents of Okinawa prefecture, a chain of islands in southwest Japan, are four times more likely to reach 100 than Americans or Britons. As in Ikaria, residents stay active into later life, and eat an unusually healthy diet, writes Lucie Elven. “Hara hachi bu”, traditionally said like a grace before meals, means “eat until you are 80 per cent full” – Okinawans use correspondingly small plates, eat little meat or fish but more soya and tofu than any other population, as well as a wide range of vegetables. They also value social health, and many are members of “moais” – groups of friends who come together each month to offer financial support and friendship. For information on visiting Okinawa, see www.okinawastory.jp/en/

 

Barbagia, Sardinia Cicero named this mountainous, sparsely-populated region in central Sardinia, the “land of the barbarians”, on account of the bandits who lurked in its remote reaches. Dan Buettner visited the area when researching his book The Blue Zones (2008), an investigation into the regions of the world with the oldest inhabitants. He attributed the Barbagians’ longevity to drinking dark Cannonau wine (with more antioxidants than other wines), and milk from goats rather than cows, and eating lots of fava beans, garlic and olive oil. Many of the area’s male centenarians are farmers or shepherds, who continue to walk long distances into old age. www.sardegnaturismo.it

Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica The northwestern part of Costa Rica’s Guanacaste province has the world’s lowest rates of middle-age mortality. Water is high in calcium, and corn and beans provide the bulk of a diet inherited from the indigenous Chorotega tribe. Nicoyan elders live as a part of a close intergenerational society and report having a “plan de vida” (a strong sense of purpose). www.visitcostarica.com

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