Friday, 24 August 2012

Longevity secrets of the Ikarians: The oldest people on earth

Greece has a secluded island where there are more people over 90 than anywhere on the planet.  This place is Ikaria, and National Geographic writer Dan Buettner spent 15 months on the island studying its people, especially the centenarians.  Buettner says only about 20 percent of how long we live is dictated by genes; the rest is lifestyle.

There were eight major 'secrets' identified by researchers that led to the healthy lifespans experienced by Ikarians:

#1: Mediterranean Diet

Ikarians have a diet low in meat and sugar and high in vegetables and sprouts (like beans).  Mediterranean diets are known to reduce risk of heart disease.  When cooking they use Extra Virgin olive oil, a much better alternative to sunflower oil.  Olive oil contains antioxidants which lower your chances of heart disease and cancer.  They also grow most of the greens they eat themselves.

#2: Goat Milk

The research team found that those over 90 on Ikaria drink goat's milk every week.  Goat milk is easier to digest and is rich in tryptophan, known to reduce stress hormones and reduce the risk of heart disease.  The milk is also used in the cheeses Ikaria produces.

#4: The Mountains

Ikaria is a mountainous place and walking is the preferred mode of transport, so Ikarians get their daily exercise without even thinking about it.  It's not uncommon to find a person over 90 walking around town without any form of assistance.

#5: The Daily Siesta

A sacred tradition in Ikaria is the afternoon half hour nap, or siesta.  Sleep reduces your blood pressure as well as your chances of a heart attack by a third, and the reason is simple: your heart rate reduces, breathing slows down and your mind relaxes when you sleep, and this in turn reduces your blood pressure.  Besides that, a nap gives your mind a reboot and there's little doubt it reduces your stress levels.  Yes, simple, beautiful sleep does all that for you.

#6: Reasonable working hours

In one example, an Ikarian clothing store owner opens her doors for trade at 9am, and closes shop by 3pm.  She then makes lunch and looks after her 96 year old mother.  And of course, they both nap.  I must admit, a six hour working day does seem a bit low, but maybe that's because we're so accustomed to working for a minimum of eight hours a day and usually go beyond that.  It's not beyond the realm of possibility that six hours of productive, creative work per day in your own space can be more fruitful than running around doing things like answering queries, responding to emails and generally just putting fires out, as is customary for most jobs.

Often due to accepted business practices knocking off at 3pm may be a bit early, but if you're say, a self-employed consultant then you can make it happen by scheduling meetings with clients early.  If you're working for someone else then it's practically impossible.  The message is clear though: too much work isn't good for you.  Whoever said hard work never killed anyone hasn't seen the face of an employee in a cubicle.

#7: Low sense of urgency (stress)

Most people don't wear watches in Ikaria and it's socially acceptable to be late.  I personally hate when people are late but the principal of this is that Ikarians don't run around according to a clock.  While in modern society it's unrealistic to live by your own time when other people are involved, there can be periods where you do just that.  Rushing from one scheduled appointment to the next without respite is very stressful.

During working hours this would mean setting appointments up, answering emails and chasing the clock in the morning, then working undisturbed in isolation in the afternoon.

#8: A Sense of Belonging

Like another group of long living people, the Okinawans, Ikarians have a strong community bond.  Genuine social connections and the support system of a loving community will literally give you more of a reason to live.

Can you reasonably be expected to live like this?

So moving to a remote island and herding goats may not be feasible for most, and I can see chaos erupting if we suddenly started keeping our own times for everything.  But it's about learning from the Ikarians, not becoming one of them.  There are some characteristics about them that are hard to dispute:

• Their lifestyle is a stark contrast to most of us in 'advanced' parts of the world, where we live the modern 'dream' of corporate bondage and never-ending deadlines.
• They live longer.
• By all reasonable estimates, they're probably a lot happier.  Unhappy people don't tend to live long.

According to Buettner, the island is mostly insulated from the mechanized conveniences and the fast-food culture of modern society. They preserve age-old customs and lifestyle habits that scientists believe explain their exceptional lifespan.  We're wired to live a certain lifestyle (a combination of natural foods, physical activity and social interaction) and the Ikarians are simply staying truer to this way of life than the rest of the world.

We on the other hand have become addicted to stress; we wear it like a badge of honour when we're excessively busy as it adds to our degree of self-importance.  Most of us have lost touch with the basics, when it's these very things that make us happy and live longer.  We're not as complicated as we like to think we are.  

The worst thing you can do is to say that living like the Ikarians is impossible and "that's the way modern life is."  Saying this absolves you from even trying.  You don't have to and probably shouldn't adopt their lifestyle in totality; but the key fundamentals underpinning their way of life is surely a good model to integrate into your life as far as you possibly can.  Living longer will then follow as a matter of course.

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