The other day I read a couple of nutrition articles in a chiropractic publication that covered topics I have previously addressed in detail. The authors cited positive studies to support their positions, but ignored negative studies that easily dominate the literature in both cases.
Those of you who have been reading this series know that the reporting I have encountered in researching this topic generally ignore the politically incorrect foods people around the world known for extreme longevity consume. Today's installment is slightly different because the unhealthy omissions regarding Ikaria, Greece, also include lifestyle.
Lifestyle is every bit as important as diet and in some cases is probably more important. In fact, four of the five longevity hot spots have similar lifestyles in that activities of daily living provide plenty of exercise: they don't have maids or gardeners and when something breaks, they fix it themselves or with the help of their neighbors. Meals are often prepared from scratch, they wash dishes by hand and line dry the laundry. Ikarians have low "clock stress" and spend their days doing things, rather than sitting in front of screens. They also have strong social/spiritual/family interactions.
Ikaria is a mountainous, 99-square-mile Greek island that is closer to Turkey than it is to mainland Greece. The rocky island has a temperate climate and claims the highest percentage of 90-year-olds in the world. In 2009, a team of researchers sponsored by the National Geographic Society and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) spent three weeks studying the demographics of Ikarians.1 In 2010, the Ikaria Study was published.2 Together they provided a host of interesting statistics on those ages 90 and older:
- Over 1 percent of Ikarians are currently 90 or older, which is 10 times the 0.1 percent rate in the rest of Europe.
- The ratio of women to men ages 90 or older is 1.1 to 1 (100 women for 90 men.) The global ratio is almost 3:1 (100 women for 35 men).
- In Ikaria, three of every nine will live to be 90, compared to only one of nine baby boomers born in America (between 1946-1964).
The statistics of those over 80 years old are also impressive.
- Worldwide, 1 percent of the people on Earth are over 80 years old. In Europe and America, it's 3 percent. On Ikaria, it's over 10 percent.
- The subjects in the study who were 80 or older had parents whose average life expectancy was calculated to be 78 years. Based on their turn-of-the-century dates of birth, that was a staggering 23 years longer than the life expectancy of 55 for the rest of the Greek population who were born in the early 1900s.
But the most amazing statistic of all was the virtual absence of dementia. In 2009, the AARP / National Geographic-sponsored investigation interviewed one-third of all living 90-year-olds on the island. When the data was compiled, they realized none of the subjects in their huge sample size had dementia! For purposes of comparison, 40 percent of those who reach age 90 in America have some degree of dementia ranging from mild cognitive impairment to full-blown Alzheimer's disease.
A full 82 percent of Ikarian men over 80 are former smokers and 17 percent are current smokers. (Smoking rates for Ikarian women over 80 are much lower: 25 percent are former and 7 percent are current smokers.) Ikarians eat a lot of potatoes; a food that has fallen out of favor by many (this author not included) in this anti-carb cycle we currently live in. Bedtime for most Ikarians is well after midnight (2 a.m. is average). Although they sleep late and take naps, it's not hard to imagine the headline many want (consciously or unconsciously) to avoid: "Smoke, stay up late, eat potatoes and live to be 100."
The Ikaria Study: Dietary Patterns
The Ikaria Study of 1,430 inhabitants included 187 people (89 males, 98 females) who were ages 80 and older. Average daily energy intake was 1,425 ± 532 kcal/day for men and 1,087 ± 460 kcal/day for women. Tables 1-2, which were adapted from the published results, provide insight into some of the food and beverage staples of the Ikarian diet.
Table 1: Weekly Food Intake
|Olive oil||6.8 ± 2 .7||5.3 ± 2.5||<.001|
|Cereals||1.7 ± 2.5||0.9 ± 1.7||.02|
|Fruits||5.5 ± 3.1||3.9 ± 2.7||.001|
|Vegetables and salads||4.8 ± 2.8||3.5 ± 2.8||.004|
|Legumes||2.0 ± 1.5||1.3 ±1.1||.001|
|Fish||2.1 ± 1.6||1.5 ± 1.2||.001|
|Potatoes||3.3 ± 0.9||3.1 ± 0.8||.20|
|Sweets||1.2 ± 2.4||1.3 ± 2.1||.88|
|Red meat and products||1.8 ± 1.9||1.2 ± 1.4||.02|
|*May be multiple servings each time a food is consumed.|
|Table 2: Daily Beverage Intake*||MEN||WOMEN|
|Alcohol drinking (oz/day)||6.3 ± 6.1||4.0 ± 3.9||.04|
|Coffee drinking (oz/day)||11.5 ± 8.8||9.9 ± 7.7||.25|
|Tea drinking (oz/day)||3.7 ± 2.8||3.3 ± 3 0||.53|
More Insights Into the Icarian Diet Dan Buettner, one of the leaders of the 2009 AARP / National Geographic-sponsored study, stated: "The Ikarian diet includes an abundance of local vegetables, eaten in season. Wild greens are a staple, and these greens contain a ton of antioxidants and other cancer-fighting nutrients. Fruits and nuts are in abundance, as are olives and olive oil. Whole grains and potatoes are eaten in moderation, and red meat is eaten only occasionally. Goat milk yogurt is traditional, and many older Ikarians will drink goat's milk as well. Local wine provides another source of antioxidants, and the wine is produced in small quantities (not for export) from grapes that are not sprayed with chemicals. [The diet is] very high in olive oil; it's very high in fruits and vegetables. It's also very high in greens; about 150 kinds of veggies grow wild on the island. These greens have somewhere around 10 times the level of antioxidants in red wine. And though they live on an island, Ikarians don't eat much fish. Ikarians drink herbal teas every day, morning and night."1
According to chef, author and American of Ikarian descent Diane Kochilas (who teaches Ikarian cooking), "The traditional Ikarian diet is a typical poor-man's Greek-island diet. It mirrors what grows or is produced locally. First and foremost among the raw ingredients of Ikarian cooking are wild edible greens and herbs. Dozens of varieties [Buettner counted 70], rich in antioxidants and minerals, blanket the island. Ikaria also boasts wild mushrooms, an excellent source of amino acids, carotene, antioxidants and proteins similar to animal proteins with none of the bad stuff; beans, which speak for themselves as excellent protein sources; high-fiber taro root; nuts (mainly walnuts, almonds, and chestnuts), stone fruits, apples, pears, grapes, figs and whole grains. Pumpkins and squashes are still a significant part of the seasonal diet, from late summer to winter. All these foods were in the typical larder while most of today's 90-year-old islanders were growing up. They are still important in the local diet, although meat is consumed much more now than it was a generation ago. Olive oil, in profuse amounts, runs free in almost every dish, including a number of sweets, on Ikaria."3
We see once again what an ill defined science this can be. Buettner commented on the large amounts of goat milk, which was totally ignored in the beverage section of the Ikaria study. Kochilas mentioned taro root in the quote above and went on to state that taro it is "something of a national food" and "remains one of the main sources of starch, especially in the winter." Yet it wasn't mentioned as a major calorie source in the Ikaria study. (See table 2 above) Finally, there are claims that the honey produced on Ikaria has immune-enhancing properties, and even that the radioactive hot springs many use are beneficial for health in a yet-to-be-determined manner.
- Buettner D. "Ikaria - Long Lived People and No Dementia!" Jan. 13, 2010.
- Panagiotakos DB, Chrysohoou C, Gerasimos Siasos G, et al. Sociodemographic and lifestyle statistics of oldest old people (>80 years) living in Ikaria Island: The Ikaria Study. Cardiology Research and Practice, 2011.
- Kochilas D. "Greek Longevity Diet." Feb. 16, 2011
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