Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Does Ikaria hold the key to longevity?

From CNN Health - Commentary: How to outlive your doctor

Editor's note: Dan Buettner is the best-selling author of "The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who've Lived the Longest."

 Ikaria, GREECE (CNN) -- In 1970, when doctors diagnosed Greek-American Yiannis Karimalis with stomach cancer and only gave him a few months to live, he decided to move back to Ikaria, his birth island. There, he reasoned, he could be buried more inexpensively among his fellow Greeks.

But when he moved back to the island he didn't die. He has lived nearly 40 years more. And when he returned to America on a recent visit, he discovered that his doctors were all dead.

The people on this 99-square-mile Greek island in the eastern Aegean Sea smugly tell this story as yet anther example of what they've always known and scientists are now discovering: People in Ikaria live longer than in just about another other place in the world. A recent study of 90-year-old siblings, conducted by the National Hellenic Research Foundation, discovered 10 times more 90-year-old brothers and sisters here than the European average.

Why is this important?

Most scientists agree that the average human should live to age 90. (You have to have won the genetic lottery to live to 100.) But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says life expectancy in America is 78.

[ ... ]

 For the next two weeks, I'm leading "The Blue Zones" expedition, an AARP and National Geographic sponsored team of the world's best demographers, physicians, medical researchers and media specialists, to explore Ikarian longevity.

We already have a few clues. Since at least the sixth century B.C., Icaria was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans as a health destination -- largely for its hot springs believed to relieve pain, joint problems and skin ailments. Our team has reviewed reports of high levels of radon in these baths and will be exploring a theory that chronic exposure to low-level radiation may help protect DNA against the ravages of aging.

 For much of the ensuing two millenniums, people here lived in relative isolation. The people here evolved a unique diet that we believe is a more heart-protective version of the Mediterranean diet. We're doing pharmacological analyses of dozens of herbal teas and unique honey produced by bees that draw pollen of thyme, fir and erica. We think we'll find anti-cancer, anti-oxidant and probiotic properties in these locally produced products.

We also know that people here have a vastly different character than the rest of the Mediterranean. They have volcanic tempers that quickly subside. Despite living on harsh, steep terrain, they're known for relentless optimism and three-day parties. They don't get stressed by deadlines. They go to bed well after midnight, sleep late and take naps. Anecdotally, we know that most people over 90 are sexually active.

Do these people possess the true secret to longevity? We're not sure yet, but we'll certainly distill a few clues about living longer, better. Ikarian wisdom may not help you live to 100. But at least they may help you outlive your doctor.

Follow and vote to direct Dan's expedition at aarp.org/bluezones

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Buettner.



From What would you give to look younger, feel younger, add good years to your life and literally turn back your biological clock?

Myth #4: Longevity is all genes.

Actually, research shows that less than 20% of how long the average person lives—within biological limits—is dictated by genes. The other 80% is determined by lifestyle.

So, if we stick with the facts, the most responsible way to find a formula for living longer and feeling younger is to look among the people who are actually living the longest. If we can find a culture where many people live extraordinarily long lives, we have the potential of finding a formula for longevity.

That's why we've come to Ikaria, this small Greek island in the eastern Aegean Sea, where people are reaching age 90 at perhaps the highest rate in the world. They're getting the years that we're missing.

I've assembled a team of some of the very best experts to help tease out the ingredients in this special longevity recipe. Over the next two weeks, we'll let you vote to direct our team as we sift through dozens of possible factors—from islanders' diets, to how they shed stress, to their attitudes towards older people. Then we'll distill some clear lessons to bring home. One of first of our leads involves, well, sex.

A local doctor related to us the story of an 84-year-old man who was bragging about his sexual prowess. His friends, as a challenge, arranged a “date” for the man with a woman 40 years his junior to see if they would get together. An hour later, his friends looked through the window and, shall we say, made visual confirmation of the man's abilities.

As flippant as it may sound, it actually illustrates the findings of Dr. Demosthenes Panagiotakos, a professor at Harakopio University in Athens. He interviewed 68 Greek men, average age 95, and 70% of them reported that they were still sexually active. Of course, we're not sure whether having sex helps them live longer or if they live longer to have sex. Either way, they can't lose.

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