On Longevity

Last October the Times published a lengthy article on individuals who live to be over 100. The article focused on the Aegean Island of Ikaria that is said to have the highest percentage of 90 year olds in the world—1 out of every 3 individuals live into their 90s. It also has a very high percentage of individuals who become centenarians.

I have no interest in living anywhere near that long. Instead, I was far more interested in the factors responsible for this degree of longevity and the methods used to identify them. The article was written by Dan Buettner, one of several investigators, currently engaged in research on the places where people live longest.

The article began by portraying Stamatis Moraitis who says he is 102. He left Ikaria in 1943 to receive treatment in this country for a combat wound. In 1976, in his mid-60s, he learned that he had lung cancer with a prognosis from 9 doctors that he had less than a year to live. He decided to return to Ikaria to be close by his children and enjoy his final days.

But as the years went by, he began to feel stronger and little by little was able to resume the island routine. That meant walking up and down the hilly landscape, planting and maintaining a vegetable garden, visiting with his friends, eating the regular diet of the island, and drinking the local herbal teas and red wine. Eventually his cancer simply disappeared.

From studying Moraitis and other Ikarians, Buettner identified several factors that he believed were responsible for their longevity, some of which are also true of other places where people live longest.

• Physical exercise
• A diet of vegetables, beans, and olive oil
• A close social community and the company of good friends
• Drinking plant-based teas and red wines high in antioxidants
• Fish twice a week, the absence of sugar and little red meat
• A regular daily nap

Buettner reports, “The power of such an environment lies in the mutually reinforcing relationships among lots of small nudges and default choices. There’s no silver bullet to keep death and the diseases of old age at bay.”

He also is aware of the limitations of his study and admits he had a very incomplete understanding of why Ikarians live so long. To conduct a rigorous, long-term study of longevity, you need to carefully monitor individuals from several regions where individuals have long life spans and compare them to matched (ideally) control group.

This is an extremely difficult study to conduct, probably requiring more than one generation of researchers and stability in the participant’s life so that they remain in the general area where they live and stay in contact with the investigators.

The best than Buettner could do was comparing Ikarians with those who live on nearby islands. When he did that, he observed that the people who live on Ikaria do outlive those on the surrounding islands.

Twenty-five years after returning to Ikaria Moraitis went back to America to ask his doctors why his cancer disappeared. He told Buettner: “My doctors were all dead.”