Did you know that the people of the Greek island of Ikaria live longer than anyone else on the planet?
It’s true! Ikarians experience 80 per cent less dementia, 50 per cent less heart disease and 20 per cent less cancer, and they reach age 90 two and half times more than Australians do.
So to find out how they do it, Marcus Pearce, CEO of The Wellness Couch and host of the Go Vita Podcast, set off to visit the little island and uncover their 7 secrets to ageing well.
One – Make eating a ceremony
The French writer Francois de la Rochefoucauld said: “To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art.” The Ikarians prioritise eating in the company of others, which stimulates conversation and encourages slower digestion. Meals are served ‘family style’, meaning diners can fill their own plate rather than being told what and how much to eat.
Two – Master the art of alcohol
When an Ikarian drinks wine, they add water to it. Wine is only ever drunk when food and other people are both present – and never on an empty stomach. Eating and drinking at the same time means the alcohol is drunk more slowly and this prevents drunkenness, which Ikarians frown upon. That said, Ikarians regard wine as an excellent social lubricant and enjoy getting tipsy, laughing and, most importantly, dancing.
Three – Dance until the day you die
Stay in Ikaria for a week and you’re bound to attend a panigiri – a festival dedicated to the saint the local village church is named after. With over 200 villages on an island of 9,000 residents, panigiris are plentiful, and feature much dancing, eating, drinking, singing, and talking.
They run for up to 12 hours, often beginning in the afternoon and going until the early hours of the morning. There is no minimum or maximum age: mothers with babies and nonagenarians all join in.
Four – Connect with your community
No panigiri? You’ll find Ikarians sipping coffee, wine or herbal tea at a cafe or neighbour’s house.
“There’s no word in Greek for privacy,” says Thea Parikos, owner of Thea’s Inn and Restaurant and our host in Ikaria. “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’s behaviour. For example, if your kids misbehave, your neighbour has no problem disciplining them. There is less crime, because of the risk of shaming the family.”
In fact, there are only two police stations on Ikaria; and one is empty with a phone line linking to the other station, which has just a few officers.
Five – Move instead of exercise
I have yet to find a gym in Ikaria. Who needs one when the island is one big playground, filled with gorges, waterfalls, goat tracks and surrounded by the beautiful Aegean Sea? And while a walk to a neighbour’s house for dinner would easily provide our recommended 10,000 daily steps, Ikarians scratch their heads at the idea of structured exercise. Instead, ‘incidental exercise’ is a way of life.
Professor Michael Woodward, Dementia Australia board member, claims 42 per cent of all dementia cases would be prevented if we moved regularly for just 30 minutes a day. No wonder there is only one nursing home on Ikaria, with a mere six residents.
Six – Get outdoors
There is little public transport on Ikaria, and cars are a luxury. So, the locals walk, which means they’re exercising, getting quality vitamin D, and breathing fresh air.
Seven – Just do it … tomorrow
Ikarians are one of the most relaxed communities you will ever find. Tourist shops sell T-shirts which play on the Nike slogan: “Just Do It … Tomorrow”. However, Ikarians are not lazy. They simply prioritise spending time with loved ones when they go home after work, knowing that their job will still be waiting for them … tomorrow. Nor does the community fall apart with this attitude. Maybe your coffee order takes 10 minutes instead of two, but it’s because the waitress wants to chat with you.