Wish You Were Here: Ikaria, The Greek Isle Where People Cheat Death

by Owen James Burke

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Mr. Stamatis Moraitis, 102 at the time this photograph was taken (though 98, records say), at home on the Greek Isle of Ikaria, alive and loving it over four decades after he’d been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. (Photo c. 2012.) (Photo credit: Andrea Frazzetta/LUZphoto for The New York Times)

Here’s an argument for communism (or communalism, if it makes you more comfortable) from a story written for The New York Times by explorer, author, and longevity researcher Dan Buettner.

In the 1940s after the Greek Civil War, political radicals and communists were exiled to the island of Ikaria, a 99-acre island 30 miles west of Turkey but worlds away from Eastern Europe and its on-again, off-again sociopolitical turmoil. The island is so lacking in natural harbors that the shipping lanes passed it right by for much of its history, as did ‘progress,’ in our contemporary concept of the word, and the people have been largely left to their own devises. It’s an island lost to time, where every clock ticks as it likes, and to say ‘I’m coming for lunch’ is to say ‘I’ll be there between 10am and 6pm.’

Life on Ikaria is self-sufficient and pastoral: rise early (but naturally), have a delightful breakfast of fresh fruit, cheese, wine, coffee or one of the island’s many herbal (and medicinal) teas, then hit the fields. A light lunch, an afternoon siesta, a stroll back into the fields until late afternoon, and a visit with the neighbors over a light dinner and a few glasses of wine before an idyllic stroll back home through the twilight in a salty, floral breeze which can only bring about the most epigamic sensations, and which lovers are helpless against (and to a ripe old age at that, they say). For some reason, everyone lives longer there.

What more could you want? Ask the Blue Mind author Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, or late, great Dorian ‘Doc’ Paskowitz, and they might add on a couple hours of swimming, surfing, or just bobbing in the sea, but probably not too much else.

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A breakfast many cultures both east and west might criticize as being decadent or hedonistic beyond reproach (‘…wine for breakfast? no, they couldn’t…’), but so hardy and fortifying that it’d really just be a sin to critique. (Photo: Andrea Frazzetta/LUZphoto for The New York Times)

If this doesn’t strike close enough to your vision of Shangri-La, consider the case of Mr. Stamatis Moraitis. A Greek War Veteran, Mr. Moraitis (who, at the time this story was first reported in the New York Times, purported to be 104) went to the United States in 1943 seeking treatment for a gunshot wound after he’d escaped to Turkey and somehow managed to work his way onto the Queen Elizabeth. He settled in Port Jefferson, New York, took a job in manual labor, got married, had children and later moved to Florida. This is about as stereotypical as a mid-twentieth century American dream could be, so far. In 1976, Mr. Moraitis felt short of breath one day, later to find that he’d developed lung cancer.

Doctor after doctor — 9 in all — told him that his days were numbered. He decided to move back to Ikaria where he could live with his parents until his time came, and where he could be buried with his ancestors. There was only one hitch to his plan: each day spent back home, he felt more and more spry, and more and more energized. His spirits lifted, and he planted a garden (which he was certain he would not harvest). Lo and behold, six months later in spring, he was working full days, and enjoying the fruits of his labor, which he had selflessly intended on planting for his community.

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“It’s not a ‘me’ place, it’s an ‘us’ place.” (Photo: Andrea Frazzetta/LUZphoto for The New York Times)

25 years after moving back to Ikaria, a presumably cancer-free Mr. Moraitis — who had taken no drugs, received no chemotherapy or sought any formal therapy — returned to America to ask his doctors what they thought might be the case for his profound and according to them, unlikely at best, recovery. Their consensus? He never heard it. They were all dead.

Below is a figure taken from The Ikaria Study, which surveyed men and women on the island who were over 80 years old (note that over 8 out of 10 men are former smokers):

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Read more about the “Island Where People Forget to Die” on The New York Times, and read Dan Buettner’s book, Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. — OB

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