An item this week that caught my attention, and might catch yours . . .
I saw an article "The Enchanted Island of Centenarians" in the New York Times Sunday magazine at the end of October (just before my lights went out), published in advance of the second edition of a book called Blue Zones by Dan Buettner, which came out last week from National Geographic.
Buettner is a longevity expert who travels the world looking for areas where people live long and happy lives -- including Okinawa where the world's longest-lived women are found, and a region in Sardinia with the highest concentration of male centenarians on Earth. He then collected and analyzed the attitudes, lifestyles and behaviors of these people who on average lead healthy lives well into their 90s and even past 100.
Buettner found his latest blue zone in Ikaria, Greece, an island in the Aegean Sea, where men are four times more likely than American men to reach the age of 90 (the regions are termed "blue zones" simply because Buettner circled the areas on his map in blue ink). People in Ikaria also live noticeably longer than their neighbors in Samos, a more developed island just ten miles away.
If you want the full story, you can get Buettner's book in paperback or on kindle. But the basic idea is that there are a number of behaviors that promote longevity. The people on Ikaria eat a diet low in the saturated fats that come from meats and diary, and they consume almost no refined sugar. Instead, they drink goat's milk and consume lots of olive oil and wild or unprocessed greens. By eating greens from their gardens and the fields, they ingest fewer pesticides and more nutrients. They drink wine almost every day, but in moderation, and they also drink two or three cups of coffee a day (coffee is associated with lower rates of diabetes, cancer and Parkinson's).
The Ikarians also get plenty of sleep, and never hesitate to take a midday nap. Also, about three-quarters of the senior citizens have sex on a regular basis.
These islanders prize their social lives. They rarely dine alone, for example, but always make a meal into a social occasion with family and friends. Buettner surmises that being engaged in the community not only gives people a sense of connection and security, but the lack of privacy may act as a check against self-destructive behavior, including crime. Ikaria has a low crime rate not because of good policing, but because everyone knows everyone else's business, and it's hard to get away with anything.
The Ikarians tend to get up late, and take a relaxed approach to work. But they're not lazy. Many hold more than one job, and the concept of "retirement" with a gold watch and a 401K plan is completely foreign to them. They take pride in being self-sufficient. No one is rich, but everyone has enough food and a roof over their heads. They also get a fair amount of exercise -- not by sweating at the gym or training for marathons, but by walking almost everywhere they go, and never worrying too much about whether they're going to be late or not.
One lesson Buettener draws from his blue zones is that the long-lived lifestyle works best as a community-based project. It's easy to stay on a good diet if everyone in the neighborhood has a kitchen garden; it's hard if there are fast-food joints and displays of chips and candy bars everywhere you go.
The lesson I draw is this: Invite some friends and family over for dinner. Serve fish and vegetables and wine; no dessert, just coffee (or tea?). Your guests should leave early so you can get a good night sleep, or engage in some exercise known to occur in the bedroom.