Ah, Americans. We get up at the crack of dawn and pop a handful of prescribed pills for stress-related ailments. We sit in traffic for hours on our way to jobs we mostly don’t enjoy. We don’t know how to relax.
Many of us are not as healthy or happy as we could be. But what can we do? We’ve got a rat race to run — it’s the American way.
Well, apparently, it doesn’t have to be that way, and if you want to know the secrets of living a truly long and happy life, you may want to bend the ear of one of the locals on this remote little island.
The Miracle Man
The New York Times recently reported on the story of a man who cheated death.
Stamatis Moraitis is a war veteran from Greece who was shot in combat in 1943. He hitched a ride to the States on a famous ship that was temporarily being used for troop transport – the Queen Elizabeth.
Once in America, he was treated for his injuries, got a job, fell in love with a Greek-American woman, settled into a perfect post-war home with a Chevy parked in front and had a few kids.
But in 1976, Moraitis started having trouble breathing, then working, then moving. He went to the doctor and was diagnosed with lung cancer. They gave him less than a year to live.
Even decades ago, medical and funeral costs were too high for him to consider staying in the U.S. He wanted to be buried on his homeland, so he and his wife moved back to the island of Ikaria.
At first, he stayed in bed at his parents’ home and waited to die.
Then, he decided he might as well get up and take a walk. He went back to church. He planted a vegetable garden so his wife would have food after he was gone. He got together with the friends of his youth, talking over a few bottles of wine.
The date of his impending death came and went, and he felt better than he had in a long time. Years went by. He added onto the small house. He planted a vineyard that became profitable. He loved and laughed and went about his quiet life day after day…
He’s now 102.
Get busy living – or get busy dying…
Researchers in all fields related to physical and mental health have been working to understand so-called “longevity pockets” – like that of Ikaria – all over the world.
Stamatis Moraitis is not the only centenarian on the island. Numerous residents are in their 80s and 90s and still going strong.
In fact, data from the University of Athens shows that residents of the island are 2.5 times more likely to reach the age of 90 than Americans.
They suffer less heart disease, stroke, and cancer. If they are diagnosed with cancer, their survival rate is much longer than that of Americans. Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s are far less present in the elderly.
So what’s their secret? And how can we get in on it, besides moving to Ikaria?
Well, their reputation as a place of health and longevity dates back millennia, and much of the island still lives a lifestyle of long ago.
The island is remote and moves at a slow pace. They work together as a community. They never rush, and they stay connected with each other.
There is no Greek word for “privacy,” because they don’t need it here.
One (ok, maybe the only one) of the island’s doctors was interviewed about why he thinks the residents of Ikaria are so happy and live so long.
They go to bed late, he says, enjoying wine and each other’s company well into the night. They sleep late (he never opens his office before 11am), and they take naps. Every day.
No one in Ikaria wears a watch, and no, it’s not because they can check the time on their cell phones. You won’t find that here.
Nearly 40 percent of the island is unemployed, partly due to the median age of residents who would typically be retired anyway, but no one struggles to get by.
Everyone has a garden, and food is shared with those who need it. The locals pool their money to buy wine and little luxuries and give the rest to the poor. It’s not about “me” here.
Apart from the slow pace, there isn’t a fast food joint in sight.
Locals eat fresh honey and use herbs as medicine in their daily tea. They eat the well-touted Mediterranean diet of lots of fresh produce – free of pesticides because they grow it themselves– fish, olive oil, goat’s milk and lentils. Meat is rarely consumed, and only when the island pig is slaughtered in celebration.
There are no refined flours or sugars here. The wine is a heart-healthy red and flows freely.
There’s little crime and lots of fresh air.
And maybe the best part of the local lifestyle? One study of Ikarian men noted that of those between the ages of 65 and 100, they engage regularly in sexual activity and with “good duration” and “achievement,” according to the Times.
Sign me up.
I like to think of myself as a healthy, fairly active person. But I have four kids and work full-time and I like my pizza and cheeseburgers because I have no time to cook as often as I’d like.
Like most Americans, I’m tired. I don’t even want to think about what I can do to relax. It’s just one more thing on my to-do list.
In reading about the remarkable health statistics of Ikarians, I personally was struck more about their contentment than their longevity.
Sure, I wouldn’t mind being around as long as I can, but what I’d really like is what most of us are lacking – the ability to really live. To relax… to breathe… to enjoy… without checking email or texts every few minutes or having to run off on some unnecessary errand.
Americans are terrible about relaxation. We work more than the citizens of any other nation on Earth. Even when we’re not working, we’re working. We’re keeping up — and keeping score.
What I wouldn’t give to adopt the lifestyle of the islanders of Ikaria. To have no idea what time it is. To putter in my garden. To talk for hours with friends over a bottle of wine.
But these locals work together to make their lifestyle possible and, sad to say, I don’t see our “me” world changing here anytime soon.
Sigh. Well, a girl can dream.
As for Stamatis Moraitis, he returned to the U.S. once and decided to make an appointment to get a better understanding of just how his cancer up-and-disappeared 30 years earlier.
He never got to find out because all his doctors were dead.
I’m pretty sure he figured it out, though, with a little help from his friends.
Maybe we can’t live like they do in Ikaria, but we can take a lesson from these islanders and slow down a little once in a while — maybe eat more vegetables and fresh honey.
I think I’ll add it to my to-do list.