Are we doing any of this “living” stuff right?
Below are excerpts from the story about Ikaria, “The Island Where People Forget to Die,” from the New York Times. The author, Dan Buettner, in conjunction with National Geographic and other researchers, has been studying areas of the world with the highest concentration of centenarians.
Among the many reasons he discovered (see title of this post), social structure is the most important:
“For people to adopt a healthful lifestyle, I have become convinced, they need to live in an ecosystem, so to speak, that makes it possible. As soon as you take culture, belonging, purpose or religion out of the picture, the foundation for long healthy lives collapses. The power of such an environment lies in the mutually reinforcing relationships among lots of small nudges and default choices…
It’s difficult to change individual behaviors when community behaviors stay the same. In the United States, you can’t go to a movie, walk through the airport or buy cough medicine without being routed through a gantlet of candy bars, salty snacks and sugar-sweetened beverages. The processed-food industry spends more than $4 billion a year tempting us to eat. How do you combat that? Discipline is a good thing, but discipline is a muscle that fatigues. Sooner or later, most people cave in to relentless temptation.”
One woman, who was born in Detroit and lived in the United States for most of her life until a “genetic craving” (her father was American and her mother Ikarian) caused her to move to Ikaria, said in the article, “I was not unhappy in America. We had good friends, we went out to dinner on the weekends, I drove a Chevrolet. But I was always in a hurry.”
She clarifies Ikaria’s social structure a bit more:
“Do you know there’s no word in Greek for privacy? When everyone knows everyone else’s business, you get a feeling of connection and security. The lack of privacy is actually good, because it puts a check on people who don’t want to be caught or who do something to embarrass their family. If your kids misbehave, your neighbor has no problem disciplining them. There is less crime, not because of good policing, but because of the risk of shaming the family. You asked me about food, and yes, we do eat better here than in America. But it’s more about how we eat. Even if it’s your lunch break from work, you relax and enjoy your meal. You enjoy the company of whoever you are with. Food here is always enjoyed in combination with conversation.”
Comparatively, most of us living in urban environments are doomed. All we care about is privacy and increasing productivity and multitasking, and no amount of Whole Foods organic produce or welfare level five meats will help us see a few more years of smoggy sunrises. If Ikaria is the paradigm then we need healthy, trustworthy individuals in order to become a society that will promote individual longevity.
But in case you’re not holding your breath, here are some Ikarian diet, sleep (napping! vindication for me!) and sex tips which may provide marginal benefits:
“As I knew from my studies in other places with high numbers of very old people, every one of the Ikarians’ dietary tendencies had been linked to increased life spans: low intake of saturated fats from meat and dairy was associated with lower risk of heart disease; olive oil — especially unheated — reduced bad cholesterol and raised good cholesterol. Goat’s milk contained serotonin-boosting tryptophan and was easily digestible for older people. Some wild greens had 10 times as many antioxidants as red wine. Wine — in moderation — had been shown to be good for you if consumed as part of a Mediterranean diet, because it prompts the body to absorb more flavonoids, a type of antioxidant. And coffee, once said to stunt growth, was now associated with lower rates of diabetes, heart disease and, for some, Parkinson’s. Local sourdough bread might actually reduce a meal’s glycemic load. You could even argue that potatoes contributed heart-healthy potassium, vitamin B6 and fiber to the Ikarian diet. Another health factor at work might be the unprocessed nature of the food they consume: as Trichopoulou observed, because islanders eat greens from their gardens and fields, they consume fewer pesticides and more nutrients. She estimated that the Ikarian diet, compared with the standard American diet, might yield up to four additional years of life expectancy…
Honey, too, is treated as a panacea. “They have types of honey here you won’t see anyplace else in the world,” he said. “They use it for everything from treating wounds to curing hangovers, or for treating influenza. Old people here will start their day with a spoonful of honey. They take it like medicine…
Ikarians’ sleep and sex habits might [also] have something to do with their long life… A 2008 paper by the University of Athens Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health that studied more than 23,000 Greek adults and followed subjects for an average of six years, measuring their diets, physical activity and how much they napped. They found that regular napping — at least three days weekly — was associated with a 37 percent reduction [of coronary disease]. She also pointed out a preliminary study of Ikarian men between 65 and 100 that included the fact that 80 percent of them claimed to have sex regularly, and a quarter of that self-reported group said they were doing so with “good duration” and “achievement.”
Finally, the most interesting and disturbing factor about everything that Buettner and his team found was that all of these healthy, happy nonagenarian and centenarians have an ikigai — “the reason for which you wake up in the morning.”
“In Okinawa [where they also studied], there’s none of this artificial punctuation of life. Instead, the notion of ikigai — “the reason for which you wake up in the morning” — suffuses people’s entire adult lives. It gets centenarians out of bed and out of the easy chair to teach karate, or to guide the village spiritually, or to pass down traditions to children. The Nicoyans in Costa Rica use the term plan de vida to describe a lifelong sense of purpose. As Dr. Robert Butler, the first director of the National Institute on Aging, once told me, being able to define your life meaning adds to your life expectancy.
What a beastly statement! We spend our whole lives trying to do this, when all the while it’s the key to living (the life we’re supposed to define) longer?!
I guess I just found my first 2013 New Year’s Resolution.
More about Dan’s project, and where to live if you want to live in communities primed for longevity:
“For a decade, with support from the National Geographic Society, I’ve been organizing a study of the places where people live longest. The project grew out of studies by my partners, Dr. Gianni Pes of the University of Sassari in Italy and Dr. Michel Poulain, a Belgian demographer. In 2000, they identified a region of Sardinia’s Nuoro province as the place with the highest concentration of male centenarians in the world. As they zeroed in on a cluster of villages high in Nuoro’s mountains, they drew a boundary in blue ink on a map and began referring to the area inside as the “blue zone.” Starting in 2002, we identified three other populations around the world where people live measurably longer lives than everyone else. The world’s longest-lived women are found on the island of Okinawa. On Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, we discovered a population of 100,000 mestizos with a lower-than-normal rate of middle-age mortality. And in Loma Linda, Calif., we identified a population of Seventh-day Adventists in which most of the adherents’ life expectancy exceeded the American average by about a decade.”