Stamatis Moraitis was in his mid-sixties, living in the United States, when he was diagnosed with lung cancer and told he had only nine months to live. He considered taking his doctor’s advice—aggressive chemotherapy—that might prolong his life but wouldn’t cure him. But upon reflection, he decided to decline it, choosing instead to return to his native Ikaria, a Greek island where he could be buried with his ancestors in a graveyard overlooking the Aegean Sea.
He and his wife moved into a small house on a vineyard with his elderly parents, where he expected he would die soon. While he prepared to die, he started going to his old church. He reconnected with old friends over a bottle or two of wine. He even planted vegetables in a garden, not expecting he’d be around to harvest them. He basked in sunshine, savored the salty air, and relished in his love for this wife.
Then six months passed, and not only did he not die, he was actually feeling better than ever. He started working in the vineyard during the day, making himself useful, and in the evenings, he’d play dominos with friends.
Three and a half decades later, Moraitis is ninety-seven years old, still living in Ikaria. He never underwent treatment.
At one point, twenty-five years after his diagnosis, Moraitis went back to the United States to ask his doctors what had happened. Apparently, the doctors were all dead.
The Island Where People Forget to Die
The New York Times article “The Island Where People Forget to Die” describes the Ikarians, a population of Greeks like Moraitis who often live healthy lives until they’re over a hundred years old.
What can we learn from the people of Ikaria about how to live long, happy, productive lives? Here are some of the longevity-inducing factors researchers ferreted out from studying this population of centenarians.
10 Things We Can Learn from the Ikarians
1. Sleep in and take naps.
A 2008 study conducted by the University of Athens Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health studied more than 23,000 Greeks and found that occasional napping was associated with a twelve-percent reduction in the risk of coronary heart disease. But regular napping—at least three days weekly—was associated with a thirty-seven-percent reduction. Zzzz’s, anyone?
2. Stop worrying about being late.
Arrive whenever you get there, and let others do the same. Worrying about when you arrive triggers “fight or flight” stress responses that can reduce your life expectancy.
3. Grow a garden, nurture it, and eat from it.
Eat plants, avoid animal products, consume lots of olive oil, avoid processed foods, and drink wine in the company of good friends.
4. Never give up your sense of purpose.
Finding and fulfilling your calling throughout your lifetime can extend your life. In fact, studies have linked early retirement to reduced life expectancy. In Okinawa, another community where many people live to be older than a hundred, people embrace the notion of ikigai—“the reason for which you wake up in the morning.” It gets centenarians out of bed and off the sofa so they can make a difference in the community. The Nicoyans in Costa Rica use the term plan de vida to describe a lifelong sense of purpose. Dr. Robert Butler, the first director of the National Institute on Aging, says that being able to define your life meaning adds to your life expectancy.
5. Get it on.
A study of Ikarian men between sixty-five and one hundred found that eighty 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.” Go dudes.
For more proof that sex isn’t just fun, it’s good for your health, read this.
6. Take a placebo at least once per day.
Ikarians take a spoonful of honey every morning. They believe it is medicine and use it for both prevention and treatment of illness and injury. They also regularly consume a homemade tea made of a special blend of herbs they believe extends their lives. While there may be some health benefit the Ikarians enjoy from the honey and herbs themselves, chances are good that the stress-relieving, relaxation-inducing effects of the positive belief they associate with the honey and tea are more potent medicine than the honey and tea themselves.
For more proof that placebos really can heal your body, read this or preorder my book Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself.
7. Walk up twenty hills a day.
To get around the island, Ikarians walk. And it’s hilly where they live. Exercise isn’t something they do at the gym. It’s a built-in part of their lifestyle.
8. Cultivate a sense of belonging.
As I wrote about in this blog post, finding your tribe, alleviating loneliness, and feeling like part of a community can cut your risk of heart disease in half and extend your life up to ten years. Be part of a community where you fit in. Ikarians live in multigenerational homes and avoid spending too much time alone.
9. Go to church.
Studies show attending religious services can extend your life up to fourteen years.
10. Surround yourself with people who follow #1 through #9.
The more you surround yourself with people engaged in health-inducing behaviors, the more it becomes part of your culture. If, however, you surround yourself with beer-guzzling, obese couch potato loners, it’s easier to become one yourself. When you surround yourself with healthy, inspiring people, you’re way more likely to live forever (well…almost).
What Works For You?
Share your tips for what helps you live a long, healthy life.
Fascinated by the Ikarians,
Lissa Rankin, MD is the creator of the health and wellness communities LissaRankin.com and OwningPink.com, author of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof You Can Heal Yourself, TEDx speaker, and Health Care Evolutionary. Join her newsletter list for free guidance on healing yourself and check her out on Twitter and Facebook.
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