The first thought that ran through my head while reading this long and amazing story from the New York Times magazine, "The Island Where People Forget to Die," was: PANIC! There's an island of zombie people out there! And for those of us who have seen George A. Romero's "Land of the Dead," you know zombies will eventually learn they don't need to breath anymore -- seeing as they're dead and all -- and simply walk across the ocean floor to reach us and chow down on our brains. So, run! Stockpile weapons! Get off the grid! The undead apocalypse is upon us!
And then I got to the first paragraph and realized the piece was about a different kind of diet.
The profile is about the 8,000 or so residents of Ikaria, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, who live quite a bit longer than the world's average, are still active as they get old, and remain sharp until their dying day. An idealized existence for most of us. The added years are so drastic, in fact, the island was the subject of a study to find out just why they live so long. Seeing as the information must be something that's translatable to the rest of the world -- you can't just tell everyone to pick up and move to Ikaria -- their findings focused on the diets of the island dwellers:
Their diet was also typical: a breakfast of goat's milk, wine, sage tea or coffee, honey and bread. Lunch was almost always beans (lentils, garbanzos), potatoes, greens (fennel, dandelion or a spinachlike green called horta) and whatever seasonal vegetables their garden produced; dinner was bread and goat's milk. At Christmas and Easter, they would slaughter the family pig and enjoy small portions of larded pork for the next several months.
A classic "Mediterranean diet," in other words. Among the other findings is that residents drink, on average, 2 to 3.5 glasses of wine a day, to go along with 10 ounces of coffee. Also, they consume "traditional Greek remedies" instead of relying on pharmaceutical cures.
Wild mint fights gingivitis and gastrointestinal disorders; rosemary is used as a remedy for gout; artemisia is thought to improve blood circulation. She invited me to give her samples and later tested seven of the most commonly used herbs on Ikaria. As rich sources of polyphenols, they showed strong antioxidant properties, she reported. Most of these herbs also contained mild diuretics. Doctors often use diuretics to treat hypertension -- perhaps by drinking tea nightly, Ikarians have gently lowered their blood pressure throughout their lives.
Of course, diet isn't the only thing that matters. A calm lifestyle also seems to play an important role:
"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." He took a sip of his wine. "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."
Which is to say, guess all those people who believe cellphones are killing us might be onto something. Maybe not through radioactivity and brain tumors, as much as keeping us from getting in our much-needed naps.