A Visit to The Island Where People Forget to Die

(c) 2014 Cable News Network // A Time Warner Company // All Rights Reserved
(c) 2014 Cable News Network // A Time Warner Company // All Rights Reserved / (c) 2014 Cable News Network // A Time Warner Company // All Rights Reserved

In the middle of the Aegean Sea, roughly 50 miles from bustling Mykonos, you might expect to find an actual fountain of youth on the remote island of Ikaria, Greece. How else would one explain the legendary longevity of its approximately 8000 residents, who are two-and-a-half times as likely to live to the ripe old age of 90 as we are in America? And 10 times as likely to see their 100th birthday?

Bill Weir, host of The Wonder List, set sail for this intriguing island for the newest episode of his CNN series, which explores the way in which the modern world is impacting (and often endangering) some of its own unique cultures. It wasn’t Weir’s first visit to Ikaria; he made a quick trip there a few years back with National Geographic explorer and writer Dan Buettner, who officially declared Ikaria one of the world’s five (and hopefully counting) Blue Zones. “Unfortunately I was only able to spend less than 48 hours on the island,” Weir tells mental_floss. “I always knew I wanted to go back and do it right.”

The first thing any visitor to Ikaria realizes is the difficulty it takes to get there. With its rocky shoreline, infamously strong winds and rough seas (which were referenced by Homer in The Iliad), and seemingly desolate oceanfront, Ikaria is not the most outwardly hospitable looking of the Greek isles. “Neighboring islands, which you can see from Ikaria, are bustling ports and tourist attractions,” Weir explains. “But it was this strange quirk of geology and geography that kept ships from docking there for many years. Then, in the age of the pirates, a lot of the locals moved up into the hills. So those quirks of history and wind and geography all led to this sort of isolated community.”

That isolation may very well be one of the reasons why Ikarians live longer—of Buettner’s five global Blue Zones, three of them (Ikaria; Sardinia, Italy; and Okinawa, Japan) are found on islands—but it’s only one of many reasons. Ikarians, who abide by a traditional Mediterranean diet, live by an “eat what you grow and serve what's fresh” mentality. And the hilly locale means that in order to eat what you grow, you must climb your way up and down to it first.

There’s also the wine, which they grow locally and serve by the liter in unassuming plastic bottles. And which they regularly enjoy with friends and family.

“I went there thinking it would be the particular kind of honey they eat every morning or some antioxidant in the plant life,” Weir says. “But the lesson I got from person after person was: all things in moderation. They know how to blow it out—they have huge parties—but it’s a treat. It’s a once-a-week event. And they eat meat as a special treat, as part of a festival or a celebration, so they always have something to look forward to. Whereas we’re so used to instant gratification: ‘I deserve to treat myself, so let me order another rack of ribs!’ It’s hardly an earth-shaking revelation to hear that, but to see how they practiced that was really interesting.”

Still, modern life is creeping in—even if it has taken several decades longer than in most parts of the world. “They got telephones in the early ’80s and now they all have Internet,” says Weir. “So they’re discovering the joys of sitting on the couch with a bag of chips and binge-watching their favorite shows like we do.”

Which means it’s up to the younger generation of Ikarians to recognize the specialness of their own community and carry on its tradition of centenarians. “It’s not a very exciting place and that has something to do with the longevity,” Weir says. “It’s not like Mykonos. To keep an energetic twentysomething on that island and keep that lineage going is their biggest challenge.”

Unfortunately, it may very well take leaving Ikaria to understand its rarity. And jumping to the obvious conclusion that the odds of living longer in a place that sees 20 percent less cancer than we do, half the amount of heart disease, and almost no depression or dementia are stacked in your favor.

“Wherever you go in the world, a lot of the health of the community is based on how comfortable everyone is in hugging each other and how close people are with their neighbors and with their family,” Weir says. “Ikarians have an intense social bond that I haven’t experienced in any other place.”

That social bond is particularly important within the family structure, where several generations of family living together under one roof—and all contributing equally—is the norm. Whereas approximately half of all Americans over the age of 95 are living in nursing homes, Ikarians in the same age bracket are still making daily treks from the hilltops into town to socialize. In Ikaria, it’s only after age 103 that banks would consider a loan a risky endeavor. There is no generation gap.

“America is such a transient society,” Weir says. “I grew up in a household where reinvention was just a U-Haul away. And families scattered to the wind as jobs and college pull you apart. And I love that about our country. But sometimes it just takes a reminder like this that it’s the little decisions that are so important: If you need help caring for your mom or dad as they get up there in age, their proximity to the family and how often they’ll get to see everyone should be as big of a concern as anything else.”

Maintaining close personal connections is just as important outside of the family. After leaving Ikaria, Weir was intent on adapting some of what he had learned there to his own life. “I came home and I told my wife: ‘We’ve got to plan a party.’ My Ikarian resolution was to connect with the people I care about in life more often. And it’s difficult. We get busy. But no one looks back from their death bed and says, ‘I wish I’d spent some more time at the office.’ It takes an effort. But the big [takeaway] for me was being jealous of that fierce human connection that these folks have. And how that keeps you living well and as long as possible.”

Watch a clip of The Wonder List's visit to Ikaria here. The Wonder List is on CNN Sunday nights at 10 p.m.

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