Foods Consumed by the Healthiest People
Part 4 - Ikaria

The other day I read a couple of nutrition articles in a Chiropractic publication that covered topics that I have previously addressed in detail. The authors cited positive studies to support their positions but the ignored negative studies that easily dominate the literature in both cases. As I was reading those articles and muttering words that are unfit to print, this thought crossed my mind - 'what percentage of the readers realized what they just read was akin to two pundits from the same political party telling the audience they were getting both sides of a given issue.' Those of you who have been reading this series (see Andersen, G D. Foods Consumed by the Healthiest People parts 1-3. Dynamic Chiropractic 2011) know that the reporting I have encountered in researching this series have generally ignored 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 also include lifestyle.

Lifestyle and Longevity

Lifestyle is every bit as important as diet is—and in some cases probably more important. In fact, 4/5 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 their neighbors and vice-versa. Meals are often prepared from scratch, they wash the dishes by hand and line dry the laundry. Ikarians have live low 'clock stress', spend their days doing things rather than sitting in front of screens. They also have strong social/spiritual/family situations.

Ikaria, Greece

Ikaria is a mountainous 99 square mile Greek island that is closer to Turkey than it is to mainland Greece. The rocky island of ~ 8300 has a temperate climate and claims the highest percentages of 90 year olds in the world. In 2009, a team of researchers sponsored by National Geographic and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) spent 3 weeks in the spring of 2009 studying demographics’ of Ikarians.1 In 2010 the Ikaria Study was published.2 Together they provided a host of interesting statistics on those 90 and above:
*Over 1% of Ikarians are currently 90 or older which is 10 times the 0.1% rate in the rest of Europe.
* The ratio of women to men aged 90 or older was 1.1 to 1 (100 women for 90 men.) The global ratio is almost 3:1 (100 women for 35 men).
*In Ikaria, 3/9 will live to be 90 compared to 1/9 baby boomers born in America. (between1946-1964). The statistics of those over 80 years old are also impressive.

The statistics on 80 year olds were also interesting:
*Worldwide, 1% of the people on earth are over 80 years old. In Europe and America, it's 3%. On Ikaria it's over 10%.
*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 1900's.

But the most amazing statistic of all was the virtual absence of dementia. In 2009, the AARP - National Geographic sponsored investigation interviewed 1/3 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% of those who reach 90 in America have various degrees of dementia ranging from mild cognitive impairment to full blown Alzheimer’s disease.

The Blemishes

A full 82% of Ikarian men over 80 are former smokers and 17% are current smokers. That is 97% and few are reporting it. (Smoking rates for Ikarian women over 80 are much lower: 25% were former and 7% 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 am 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 love to be 100.”

The Ikaria Study2 of 1430 inhabitants included 187 people (89 m, 98 f) who were 80 and older. See tables 1,2,3 which were adapted from the published results.

Table 1
Average daily energy intake (kcal/day) in Ikarians age 80+ MEN
1425 ± 532 WOMEN
1087 ± 460

Table 2
Ikarians age 80 + Weekly Food Intake
Times/week* WOMEN

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 3
Ikarians age 80 + 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
* Adapted from ref 2

When we contrast the study findings with two Ikarian experts, –
1. 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. It's 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

2. Chef, author and American of Ikarian descent Diane Kochilas (who teaches Ikarian cooking) stated: “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. Kochila mentioned taro root in the quote above and went on to state 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 that the radioactive hot springs many use are beneficial for health in a yet to be determined manner.

1. Buettner, D. Ikaria - Long Lived People and No Dementia! 1-13-10. Accessed 1-5-11.
2. 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), Article ID 679187, 7 pages doi:10.4061/2011/679187
3. Kochilas, D. Greek Longevity Diet. Posted 2-16-11; accessed 1-9-12

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