Ikaria, an idyllic Greek island of only 99 square miles, has recently joined the ranks of an august group of locales: places where people live abnormally long lives. The isle, where nearly one out of three locals will live to see their 90th birthday, has been dubbed the fifth “blue zone” by longevity researcher, Dan Buettner.
Other members of this elite list include Okinawa, Japan; the Barbagia region of Sardinia, Italy; Loma Linda, California; the Adriatic island of Ilovik in Croatia; northwestern Azerbaijan; Bergen County, New Jersey; and the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica. People in these areas not only live longer but also remain healthy and mentally sharp well into their twilight years.
While no one can be sure exactly what causes this usually long longevity, it seems that naturally active lifestyles, balanced plant-based diets, a strong sense of community in which bonds between families and friends remain resilient, and some local customs and remedies play a major role in engendering these extended life spans. On the island of Ilovik, for example, cars are banned, and the nearest McDonald’s is three hours away — by catamaran.
Ikaria, Greece: The inhabitants of this mountainous Greek island found 35 miles off the coast of Turkey lengthen their lives one cup at a time. The Ikarian “mountain-tea” made of the island’s local herbs is actually a mix of traditional Greek remedies. The blend contains wild mint, which remedies gingivitis and gastrointestinal issues, and rosemary, which serves as a treatment for gout, among other herbs. It’s very rich in antioxidants and contains mild diuretics, which may fight hypertension.
Sardinia, Italy: The Sardinian diet plays a major role in ensuring longevity and good health. Though predominantly plant-based, Sardinian fare also makes generous use of sheep’s milk and goat cheeses, such as pecorino. The goat’s diet is also unique, as it includes dwarf curry, a plant used to make anti-inflammatory drugs. Meat is not the main dish in Sardinia, but is used as an accent. Sardinians often accompany their meals with a few glasses of Cannanau, a local dark red wine that contains three times as many heart-healthy antioxidants and flavonoids compared to other wines.
Loma Linda, California: Loma Linda, 60 miles east of Los Angeles, is home to a community of Seventh-Day Adventists, the longest-lived people in the United States. Their strict adherence to their religion not only fosters community but also allows for an escape from stress. By observing the Sabbath, the Seventh-Day Adventists carve time out of their weeks to decompress, relax and switch their focus to themselves, their families, and friends.
Okinawa, Japan: The natives of this archipelago 360 miles off the coast of the Japanese mainland have a unique method of portion control. Okinawans begin every meal by saying hari hachi bu, an adage that means, “eat until you are 80% full. “ It actually takes 20 minutes for your brain to realize that your stomach is full, so by adhering to the rule of hari hachi bu, Okinawans don’t overeat.
Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica: In this isolated strip of land, having a plan de vida, or reason to live, is paramount. The locals believe that having a purpose in life is key to living late into their twilight years. The plan de vida often revolves around faith and providing for one’s family. This belief in a higher power reduces stress and anxiety, while caring for the family keeps Nicoyans physical active.
Ilovik, Croatia: In a study published in August 2006, the Croatian National Insitute of Public Health determined that residents of this bucolic outpost of olive groves and oleander have an average life expectancy of 95, the highest in Croatia, and maybe the world. By comparison, the residents of Andorra (pop. 71,000), the country with the highest average life expectancy, can hope to make it to 83. Besides pressing their own olive oil, Ilovikers still grow most of their own vegetables: tomatoes, string beans, and squash in the summer; chard, brussles sprouts, and cauliflower in the winter. It’s said that one Iloviker who reached the age of 104 kept a bowl of radiccho sprinkled with sugar by her bedside for a nighttime snack.
Lerik, Azerbaijan: In 1956 the Soviet Union issued a stamp to celebrate the 148th birthday of Azerbaijani native Mahmud Eyvazov, believed to be the super power’s oldest-living inhabitant. While such claims are hard to verify, some 20 centenarians have been identified in the Lerik district of Azerbaijan, close to the Iranian border. Researchers have pointed to a diet heavy on yoghurt and garlic, as well as a concentrate of white mulberries, called “Bahmaz,” said to contain more than 30 vitamins, minerals, and amino acids.
Asian-Americans in Bergen County, N.J., and Hawaii: In the bedroom communities just west of Manhattan, Asian-American women can expect to reach 91 years—the highest U.S. longevity result in a study that broke down life spans in America by race, region, and income. The Asian advantage seems to persist even for later generations. With an Asian-American population of well over 40%, Hawaii has the nation’s highest life expectancy: 80 years.