Ageing in the Aegean

Making it to 90 years old is
awe-inspiring in much of the world. But on a tiny Greek island in the North Aegean Sea, nonagenarians barely merit a second
glance.

The island of Icaria
could be the newest of the world’s so-called blue zones — places where
residents have unusually long life spans.

Dan Buettner has crossed the globe
many times over the years in search of blue zones, and he recently teamed up
with AARP and National Geographic to study Icaria.

Buettner and a team of demographers
work with census data to identify blue zones around the world. They found Icaria had the highest percentage of 90-year-olds
anywhere on the planet — nearly 1 out of 3 people make it to their 90s.

Plus, Buettner says, “they
have about 20 percent lower rates of cancer, 50 percent lower rates of heart
disease and almost no dementia.”

Our life spans are about 20 percent
dictated by our genes, Buettner says. The rest is lifestyle. People in Icaria live in mountain villages that necessitate
activity every day. “They have gardens,” he says, for example.
“If they go to church, if they go to their friends’ house — it always occasions
a small walk. But that ends up burning much more calories than going to a gym
for 20 minutes a day.”

“They also have a diet that’s
very interesting,” Buettner continues. “It’s very high in olive oil;
it’s very high in fruits and vegetables.” It’s also very high in greens;
about 150 kinds of veggies grow wild on the island. “These greens have
somewhere around 10 times the level of antioxidants in red wine.”

And though they live on an island,
Icarians don’t eat much fish. Buettner says pirates pushed the culture up in
the highlands and villagers couldn’t depend on the sea as much as might be expected.

Particularly unusual to this new
blue zone are the villagers’ drinking habits. Tea drinking, that is. Icarians
drink herbal teas every day, morning and night, Buettner says. This seems to be
one of their secrets to longer living.

“We had five of these herbal
teas sent to Athens
and analyzed for their chemical composition,” Buettner reports. “We
found out that most of them were diuretics.”

“It turns out that diuretics
actually lower blood pressure,” he says, “so when you’re chronically
lowering blood pressure every day with these herbal teas, that does help explain
why there’s lower rates of heart disease.”

“That’s something we haven’t
seen in Okinawa or Costa Rica
or Sardinia or any of the other blue
zones,” Buettner says.

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