Traveling archbishop picked up on Icarians’ longevity 400 years ago


A healthy diet with lots of seasonal fruit and vegetables and no processed food, often vigorous daily exercise, a clean natural environment and a different outlook on life, where one is happy with little – these are among the reasons often cited for the longevity of the inhabitants of the island of Icaria, who are among the longest-living people in the world.

What’s striking is that the same demographics and environmental characteristics existed on Icaria 400 years ago. Then, an archbishop described it as a small island that was the poorest but happiest in all the Aegean where you would often meet people who’d made it to 100 years of age.

His name was Iosif Georgirinis, the archbishop of Samos, who described life on Nikaria (Icaria), as well as Samos, Patmos and Mount Athos, in a book he published in London in 1678. In it, he said of Nikaria, “The air and the land are so healthy that they make its residents live a very long time. It’s common come across centenarians. This is quite shocking when one considers their hardworking life.” When it comes to the island’s diet, the archbishop wrote, “Before meal time, it is impossible to find bread anywhere on the island. Just before it’s time to eat, they use the necessary amount of wheat, grind it with the hand wheel, bake the dough on a slab of stone, and, when it’s ready, the head of the family shares out equal parts of this bread among the members of his family.

If there is a guest, they are offered a share, which is taken out of the family members’, and they drink a third of the wine. Their diet is poor but their bodies are sturdy and hardy, and they generally live a long time.” He also said, “They live as if they won’t live to see another day, thankful they managed to cope with the basic needs of the day.”

Three-and-a-half centuries later, Icarians are still outliving their counterparts elsewhere around the world. According to the latest statistics, just 0.1 percent of Europeans live beyond the age of 90. On Icaria, however, that figure shoots up to more than 1 percent.

According to cardiology professor Christodoulos Stefanidis, the longevity of Icarians inspired a study that has so far yielded tremendous information on the island lifestyle and specific environmental factors. Dr Stefanidis notes, “The Mediterranean diet, rich in fiber, vegetables, fruits and fish, the preference for Greek coffee, moderate consumption of wine, daily exercise, lower stress, less frequent cases of depression, companionship and social activity are a few of the behaviors common to young and elderly residents which, combined with the geophysical characteristics of the area, contribute to longevity.”

“The most significant finding on the island of longevity is that everything we observed in the IKARIA study was also observed 400 years ago,” says cardiologist Panagiota Pietri, who is the director of the hypertension unit at the Athens Medical Center.

The writings of Iosif Georgirinis on this subject were recently published in the scientific journal Nature in an article titled “Environment: An Old Clue to the Secret of Longevity.” New findings on the longevity of Icaria residents will be unveiled at an international conference titled “Longevity: A Realistic Goal,” which will take place at the Athens Hilton on September 8 and 9.