Blue Zones: Into Ikaria, Greece

Lifestyles of the World’s Longest Living Populations

Posted on 21 May 2024 in Other

Blue Zones: Into Ikaria, Greece

Lifestyles of the World’s Longest Living Populations

Posted on 21 May 2024 in Other

In the heart of the Aegean Sea lies a tiny and enchanting island. Named from the Greek myth of Icarus, the wax-winged boy that fell to Earth after flying too close to the sun, the isle of Ikaria is known for its rugged terrain and clean, warm breeze. As most Ikarians live inland from the rocky coastline, an isolated culture has emerged - one that boasts traditional living, community, and most of all longevity. After all, it is home to one of the world's five Blue Zones.

What Are Blue Zones?

Blue Zones are regions of the world characterized by exceptional longevity, where extraordinary populations of centenarians live. A centenarian is a person who has lived to over the age of 100, and Blue Zones are where large numbers of these individuals tend to be found, living vibrant lives well into their 100s. This inclination towards long life surpasses global average lifespans by a significant margin, and so exploration into these zones begs the question – What lifestyles and habits do their people have in common and how are they consistently living so long?

As Blue Zones encompass not only geographical locations but also cultural and lifestyle factors contributing to longevity as well, common characteristics shared by these populations have been identified, including genetics, dietary habits, physical activity levels, social connections, and sense of purpose.

Read more about Blue Zones in our previous post in the series, Blue Zones: The Sardinia Story, here.


The Centenarian Lifestyle in Ikaria

A Long Life Inclination

Ikaria is unique in its affinity towards longevity. With more than one in three residents living into their 90s, Ikaria’s population is several times more likely to live past the age of 100 compared to global averages. The island is also unique in that instances of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes are significantly lower, and cases of dementia are almost entirely nonexistent.

Ikarians have a mantra: "The older we get, the more attention we give to each other". This sentiment underscores the importance of community and social connection in Ikarian life. Older individuals remain active and engaged in everyday life, contributing to their well-being and the dynamic of their families and communities.

Intergenerational Households

Households in Ikaria often hold multiple generations, with it being common to find three generations living under one roof. Grandparents play an active role in raising their grandchildren, taking on the role of caregivers and passing down wisdom and tradition to their grandchildren. This close-knit family structure provides emotional support and a sense of belonging for all members, and ensures that older individuals remain socially engaged, which is crucial for mental and physical well-being.


Ikarian Eating: The Mediterranean Diet

The cornerstone of Ikarian longevity lies in their diet, firmly rooted in traditional Mediterranean cuisine. Rich in fruits and vegetables, wild greens, beans, potatoes, grains, fish and goat’s milk, and limited in meat and sugars, the Ikarian diet is a testament to the health benefits of nutritious foods.

Goat’s milk is preferred over cow’s milk, as it contains essential potassium and the stress-relieving hormone tryptophan. It is also often tolerated well by people who are lactose intolerant.

Olive oil is a mainstay in Ikarian cuisine, with olive trees populating the entire island, providing healthy fats for consumption. Olive oil contains cholesterol lowering mono-unsaturated fats, making it a simple and wholesome addition to the Ikarian diet.

Ikarians have a deep connection to their land, with many cultivating their own vegetables and herbs in home gardens. This not only ensures a steady supply of nutrient-rich produce, but also provides a source of physical activity and connection to nature. From ripe fig and olive trees to resveratrol-rich vineyards, each garden tells a story of sustenance and vitality.


Ikaria’s Herbal Antioxidants

Ikarians chronically consume over 80 varieties of wild greens, some of which contain 10 times the antioxidants of red wine. These greens, along with herbal infusions of oregano, mint, rosemary, and sage, are said to contribute to lower blood pressure and inflammation by ridding the body of excess sodium and water, and promote overall health and well-being.

These herbal teas and herb blends are a cherished part of the Ikarian diet, enjoyed during social gatherings with family and friends. The teas not only provide a refreshing beverage but also offer numerous health benefits, including immune system support and stress reduction. Sage tea is believed to improve cognitive function and memory, while oregano tea is said to have antimicrobial properties that may help prevent infections. These herbal infusions are an integral part of the Ikarian lifestyle.


A History of Wine

In Ikaria, wine is more than just a beverage—it's a symbol of celebration, connection, and moderation. Whether enjoyed during a family meal or shared with friends at a local tavern, wine plays a central role in Ikarian social life, fostering bonds and strengthening community ties.

The moderated consumption of natural, sulphite-free red wine is the standard in Ikaria. Rich in polyphenols and resveratrol, Ikarian wine is celebrated for its cardiovascular benefits and anti-inflammatory properties, further contributing to the island's remarkable longevity. Indeed Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, was said to have been born on Ikaria and worshipped in a cave above the secluded cove of Lero in the island’s northeast.


Routine Exercise in Ikaria

Exercise is ingrained in the fabric of everyday Ikarian life. From swimming in the crystal clear Aegean waters to hiking the ancient cliff-side foothills, Ikarians embrace physical activity as a way of life. The island’s rugged terrain and traditional way of life necessitates consistent movement, with Ikarians exercising mindlessly just through daily activities such as gardening, tending to vineyards, and walking. The people enjoy spending their days outdoors, fostering connections with nature.


Ikaria’s Community Ties

Beyond the sun-kissed landscape, Ikaria thrives on the strength of its tight-knit communities and intergenerational bonds. Rooted in a communal mentality forged through centuries of resilience, Ikarians take care of each other with unwavering devotion, and keep parents and grandparents close by. Older individuals have a purpose within their communities and live vibrant lives, helping around the home and outdoors and imparting wisdom on younger generations. The message from their families is: “We not only love you, we need you”.

From sharing meals with neighbours to village gatherings, every interaction between Ikarians fosters a sense of belonging and purpose within their community that transcends generations.


Ikarian Culture and Leisure

Life in Ikaria unfolds at a leisurely pace, with little regard for schedules or clocks. Residents prioritize enjoyment and relaxation, whether it's swimming in turquoise waters, tending to vineyards, or simply savouring the company of loved ones over a pot of herbal tea.

This emphasis on leisure and pleasure promotes stress reduction and mental well-being for Ikarians, essential components for longevity.


The Healing Powers of Nature

In Ikaria, nature is not just a backdrop but a source of healing and rejuvenation. From the hot springs of Therma to the pine-clad slopes of the north, Ikarians harness the therapeutic benefits of their natural surroundings.

The island’s natural thermal baths have remained in common use since Roman times, a long standing testament to the healing powers of water. Said to be an aid for many ailments from arthritis to respiratory problems, the radon-laced waters flow through rock between temperature of 31C and 58C, creating alfresco hot springs.

Whether soaking in these mineral-rich hot waters or basking in the sun, Ikarians find peace in nature.

Rejuvenation Through Rest

Ikarians enjoy sleeping well and regularly take mid-afternoon naps. Napping lowers stress hormones and as such, those who nap regularly may have better heart health and are less likely to develop heart disease.


Embracing the Ikarian Way of Life

The slow pace by which Ikarians live and thrive teaches us the importance of reducing stress and fostering contentment through leisurely activities and social connections. Maintaining a home garden, walking in nature, eating fruits and vegetables, spending time with friends and family, and sleeping well all contribute to better, longer living.

Inspired by the timeless wisdom of Ikaria's centenarians, let us embrace simplicity, nourish our bodies with wholesome foods, cultivate meaningful connections, and find joy in the simple pleasures of life. For in the heart of Ikaria's Blue Zone lies the secret to a long life well-lived – a harmonious balance of mind, body, and spirit, guided by an appreciation for nature and all those around us.  

Keep an eye out for our next Blue Zones blog post - Blue Zones: Noteworthy Nicoya! 

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