Stamatis Moraitis was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer when he was in his mid-60s. Given only 6 months to live, the Greek war veteran and his wife left their home in New York and returned to his childhood home: The aisle of Ilkaria, Greece.
Moraitis, awaiting his inevitable death, drank wine, took long naps, and visited with childhood friends. When he felt well enough, he worked in his garden, sad that he would never live to reap the crops that he sewed.
Six months came and went. Moraitis didn’t die. He worked more in his garden, harvesting crops he had planted. He added rooms to his elderly parents’ home so his children could come to visit. He took more naps, drank more wine, visited with more friends.
Three and a half decades after his 6-months-to-live prognosis, Moraitis is still alive. The cancer is gone. The Greek is 102 years old.
Dan Buettner met Moraitis this past summer during a visit to “explore the extraordinary longevity of the island’s residents.” Buettner has been working for the past decade with the National Geographic Society to organize a study of places where people live the longest.
In a sit-down chat with the island’s physician, Dr. Ilias Leriadis, Buettner sought to discover the secrets of longevity on the 99-square-mile home of 10,000 Greeks.
On an outdoor patio at Leriadis’ weekend house, the two sat at a table spread with Kalamata olives, hummus, heavy Ikarian bread and wine.
“People stay up late here,” Leriadis said. “We wake up late and always take naps. I don’t even open my office until 11 a.m. because no one comes before then. Have you noticed that no one wears a watch here? No clock is working correctly. When you invite someone to lunch, they might come at 10 a.m. or 6 p.m. We simply don’t care about the clock here.”
Leriadis also talked about local “mountain tea,” made from dried herbs endemic to the island, which is enjoyed as an end-of-the-day cocktail. He mentioned wild marjoram, sage, a type of mint tea, rosemary and a drink made from boiling dandelion leaves and adding a little lemon.
“People here think they’re drinking a comforting beverage, but they all double as medicine,” Leriadis said. “Honey, too, is treated as a panacea. They have types of honey here you won’t see anyplace else in the world,” he added. “They use it for everything from treating wounds to curing hangovers, or for treating influenza. Old people here will start their day with a spoonful of honey. They take it like medicine.”
Ilkaria’s healthy reputation is not a new one: In the 17th century, the bishop of Ilkaria noted that is “an ordinary thing [here] to see persons … on 100 years of age.” The bishop, Joseph Georgirenes, noted, “The most commendable thing on this island, is their air and water, both so healthful that people are very long-lived.”
Not only are the people of Ilkaria living longer, they are living healthier. Ilkaria’s residents show fewer signs of heart disease, obesity, stroke and high blood pressure. While almost half of American 85 and older how signs of Alzheimer’s, Ilkaria’s elderly are staying mentally sharp well into their 90s. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that “dementia cost Americans some $200 billion in 2012.”
Diet is assumed to play a large role. Being on a small island, the residents are – for the most part – self-sufficient. They are also relatively poor. Their diet, therefore, is simple and healthful, consisting mainly of lentils, legumes, potatoes and home-grown produce. They drink goat’s milk but little other dairy, and save meat for special occasions.
Dr. Christina Chrysohoou, a cardiologist at the University of Athens School of Medicine, points out another possible “health factor.” In a preliminary study of Ikarian men between 65 and 100, 80 percent of men claimed to have sex regularly. A quarter of that group stated they were having sex with “good duration” and “achievement.”
Whatever it is, it seems that a life of good wine, good friends, simple food, and satisfying sex keeps death at bay. At least for 100 years.