Longevity and Diet and Lifestyle
Island of Ikaria. Photo source: Flickr CC via ForsterFoto
From time to time, we’ve all read and marveled at those reports of isolated pockets around the globe where people tend to have greater than normal longevity. Such regions include Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and the Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California. Studies have been done to observe what in the lives of these longer lived humans are different and healthier than elsewhere.
Napping, not caring about time, drinking red wine, eating fresh greens and colorful fruits, having a strong support system, eating legumes and fish instead of red meat, keeping mildly active all day long, and not eating much processed food or sugar — those are some of the items that make the list by those who have studied these regions.
Longevity Graphic source: Wikipedia.
The recent NYTs magazine article, The Island Where People Forget to Die focuses on the Greek island of Ikaria and what is unique about these people that makes them live longer. I found the article fascinating and I hope that I can entice each reader here to read it, if you haven’t already.
Ikaria is a 98 square-mile island of Greece and has a population of just over 8,000 people. If you read about the lifestyle of these long lived island dwellers, you might become jealous, like I did, because it sounds pretty great to live near the sea in a Mediterranean climate, get up late in the morning ignoring time, have leisurely lunches including a couple glasses of wine each day with long time friends and family followed by an afternoon nap, and then do some gardening before a light evening meal.
Garden greens at market. Photo source: Flickr CC via futureshape.
These Ikarians might have wine for breakfast along with goat’s milk, sage tea or coffee, honey and bread. Their average lunch includes lentil or garbanzo beans, potatoes, greens, and seasonal vegetables from the garden. Dinner is light and simple — bread and goat’s milk. The Christmas and Easter holidays are the time to eat meat, which is the family pig.
Ikarians like their home-made herbal teas. They use rosemary, dandelion, mint, marjoram and sage for making “mountain tea” and they use honey as medicine — to treat wounds, influenza, and hangovers. Old people start their day with a spoonful of honey.
Honey. Photo source: Flickr CC via Siona Karen.
Polyphenols are antioxidants found in red wine, and they are also found in the herbs commonly used in Ikaria. These herbs also act as mild diuretics which may serve as life-long blood pressure reducers for the people ingesting them. In addition, “Wild mint fights gingivitis and gastrointestinal disorders; rosemary is used as a remedy for gout; artemisia is thought to improve blood circulation.” Wine, so prevalent in their diets, also helps the body absorb antioxidant flavonoids.
View of Agios Kirykos, Ikaria’s capital. Photo source: wikipedia
In summary, Ikarians eat a Mediterranean diet. They eat a lot of olive oil and vegetables, plus goats milk but little additional dairy or meat products, and moderate amounts of wine. They eat mostly homegrown potatoes, garbanzo, black-eyed peas and lentil beans, wild greens, and locally produced honey. They do not eat processed foods and their own garden grown greens most likely have more nutrients and fewer pesticides.
All in all, the people of Ikaria eat about six times as many legume beans as we Americans do. Legumes are a super-food, high in protein, with a low glycemic index. They eat fish twice a week and meat about five times a month. They drink two to three cups of coffee a day and have about a quarter the amount of sugar that Americans do, on average.
But this is not all about diet. They get plenty of fresh air and sunshine all year long. They live a leisurely lifestyle but are active, climbing hills to go about their daily activities, and their social support network is extensive.
Fish, Greece. Photo source: Flickr CC via santanartist.
It is possible that these global pockets of longer lived populations include favorable genetics, as we attribute genes to being a huge factor in health and disease. But more recent studies are showing that genes can be turned on and off and altered by our eating and lifestyle choices. Just as carcinogens and toxins can cause genetic mutations in negative ways, exercise can alter DNA in a positive way, and eating fresh fruits and vegetables has recently been shown to change a gene variant for heart disease. The NYTs article about Ikaria also states that napping three times a week reduces coronary heart disease by 37 percent. Phytonutrients, or plant nutrients, contain antioxidants that give fruits and vegetables their bright colors and help prevent cancer and other diseases. Food is medicine!
Keeping mildly active all day long is important. While gardening isn’t a lot of aerobic exercise, compared to sitting at a computer desk it is quite a bit of activity. We are reminded in headlines repeatedly that sitting for lengths of time as little as two or three hours will shorten our lives. Worse yet, we can’t cancel out the damage done from sitting, even through a strenuous hour of exercise each day. Could this be why farmers and serious gardeners are often long lived?
This post would not be complete without trying to imagine what today’s agricultural system would look like if the world’s population ate the Mediterranean diet. In doing so, I can envision a much healthier natural world, in addition to its healthier human inhabitants. We could maintain natural habitats with controlled goat or sheep populations, healthy honeybees, local gardens, grow lots of dried beans for protein, grains for bread, orchards, olive groves for oil, and wineries. There would be plenty of arable farmland due to the reduction in livestock production. We might need soybeans for fish farming and aquaculture. A limited number of pigs could forage, live in woodlands, and eat scraps once again. We’d know where our food comes from because each of us would help bring our meals to the table. In the process, we’d be more active and connected with the people and the earth around us.