“Look at this island! People there live longer and healthier than just about anywhere. We should go. Maybe it will rub off on us,” I said to Rich a few years ago, while researching our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour. “They did a study and 80% of the men between 65 and 100 still enjoy an active sex life.”
Impressively, these guys still had plenty of energy leftover to get out on the dance floor as well. The island was Ikaria, Greece, one of the Blue Zones, regions famous for vitality and longevity. I went to an all-night party there, and the 93-year-old who opened the dancing was still at it when Rich and I stumbled out the door in the small hours of the morning. Yowza!
There's a famous story about one island resident's powers of recovery. Several people on Ikaria told me the tale, and Dan Beuttner wrote about it in The Blue Zones.
During WWII, a young Ikarian named Stamatis Moraitis had an injury that required treatment in the USA. He stayed there, married, and raised a family. At 60 he learned he had lung cancer; his five doctors gave him six to nine months to live. He decided to go back to the island so he could die among his own people; he and his wife moved in with his parents, and Moraitis retired to bed to await the inevitable.
Old friends dropped by to share a glass of wine. Occasionally Moraitis would sit in the garden. One day he planted a few vegetables. He started puttering around tidying the vineyard. Pretty soon he was building an addition on the house.
“Today,” wrote Buettner, “35 years later, he is 100 years old and cancer-free. He never went through chemotherapy, took drugs, or sought therapy of any sort. All he did was move to Ikaria.”
Buettner asked Moraitis if he had any idea how he’d recovered from lung cancer.
“It just went away,” he said. “I actually went back to America about ten years after moving here to see if the doctors could explain it to me.”
Buettner asked what happened.
“My doctors were all dead.”
Stories like these are inspiring headlines asking, Should I Retire in a Blue Zone? The short answer is probably not.
There are five identified Blue Zones: Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; and the Seventh Day Adventist community in Loma Linda, California. Although they all enjoy good weather, a laid-back lifestyle, and healthy eating, each has drawbacks. Ikaria, for instance, has no major airport or hospital and is a long ferry ride from anywhere.
What the Blue Zone folks have discovered isn’t a fountain of youth, it’s a lifestyle that removes major stressors that make us age faster: time-pressure, isolation, unhealthy food, and the self-fulfilling expectation that at 65 we’ll begin to deteriorate in a variety of embarrassing and debilitating ways. People in the Blue Zones don’t share those habits and attitudes, and maybe it’s time we got rid of them, too. You don’t have to move abroad to do it, although there are places — like Seville — that do make it easier.
Personally, I am doing my best to adopt these eight elements of the Blue Zone approach.
1. An active social life. In the US, we tend to live further apart, and everyone’s so busy even dinner with close friends requires planning weeks in advance. On Ikaria, people tend to stroll out most evenings after dinner and drop in on their neighbors for a casual chat. Likewise, in Seville impromptu gatherings are common. New expats join social clubs such as the American Women’s Club and InterNations to find kindred spirits. This is vital, says psych professor William Chopik, because “as we get older, our friends begin to have a bigger impact on our health and well-being, even more so than family.”
2. The Mediterranean Diet. All Blue Zoners follow some version of it, bucking the American fast food trend spreading across the globe. Here in Spain, it’s much easier to eat a natural, plant-based diet. I follow Michael Pollan’s shorthand definition of this approach: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
3. A little wine every day. A few glasses of wine in the evening is standard on Ikaria. I generally have just one, but I am considering upping my game. Strictly for health purposes, of course.
4. No gym, just natural exercise. I remember years ago dragging myself to brutal fitness classes. Never again. In Blue Zones, daily life includes a lot of walking and other gentle exercise, such as gardening. A large Swedish studied showed gardening and similar forms of puttering around can increase longevity by 30%. Put the money you save on gym fees into tomato seedlings.
5. Daily siestas. People in the Blue Zones tend to rest after lunch. They don’t always sleep; sometimes they read, meditate, or do something equally relaxing. But they hit the pause button and feel better for it. “Don’t think you will be doing less work because you sleep during the day,” said Winston Churchill, who lived to 90. “That’s a foolish notion held by people who have no imaginations. You will be able to accomplish more. You get two days in one — well, at least one and a half.”
6. Sense of purpose. "Everybody needs a passion. That's what keeps life interesting,” said Betty White, who lived and worked to the age of 99. You'll never lack for things to do during a move abroad, but eventually you will settle in and then it's time to develop other interests. Travel is top on my list, with writing and painting in the offseason. Rich has taken online classes on happiness, grumpiness, memory, justice, and astronomy. He arrives at every meal with lots to talk about.
7. No retirement from life. I start worrying whenever I hear recently retired friends say, “I never do anything. I have six Saturdays and a Sunday every week.” Leaving a job can be liberating; becoming a couch potato is less so. George Burns, who lived to 100, agreed. “Retirement at 65 is ridiculous. When I was 65, I still had pimples.”
8. Positive attitude. Blue Zone people don’t fret about aging because they don’t view old age as God’s waiting room but rather as having more time to do things. “Get busy living or get busy dying,” says Morgan Freeman, actor, producer, and political activist. He got his pilot’s license at 65, and at 85 is still having fun doing guest roles on shows like The Kominsky Method.
So to recap: No, you probably don’t want to live in one of the Blue Zones. Yes, their lifestyle makes sense, and it’s not a bad idea to see if you can adopt some elements of it wherever you may be. If you're dreaming of living abroad, see how many of these eight elements you’ll find in destinations you’re considering. Maybe someday you’ll be the 93-year-old life of the party on an island somewhere. It’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it.
I'd love to think Rich and I could learn to do this, but to be honest, I couldn't dance like this on my best day at any age. Dietmar & Nellia, you rock!
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