Making it to 90 years old is awe-inspiring in much of the world. But on a tiny Greek island in the North Aegean Sea, nonagenarians barely merit a second glance.
The island of Icaria could be the newest of the world's so-called blue zones — places where residents have unusually long life spans.
Dan Buettner has crossed the globe many times over the years in search of blue zones, and he recently teamed up with AARP and National Geographic to study Icaria.
Buettner and a team of demographers work with census data to identify blue zones around the world. They found Icaria had the highest percentage of 90-year-olds anywhere on the planet — nearly 1 out of 3 people make it to their 90s.
Plus, Buettner says, "they have about 20 percent lower rates of cancer, 50 percent lower rates of heart disease and almost no dementia."
Our life spans are about 20 percent dictated by our genes, Buettner says. The rest is lifestyle. People in Icaria live in mountain villages that necessitate activity every day. "They have gardens," he says, for example. "If they go to church, if they go to their friends' house — it always occasions a small walk. But that ends up burning much more calories than going to a gym for 20 minutes a day."
"They also have a diet that's very interesting," Buettner continues. "It's very high in olive oil; it's very high in fruits and vegetables." It's also very high in greens; about 150 kinds of veggies grow wild on the island. "These greens have somewhere around 10 times the level of antioxidants in red wine."
And though they live on an island, Icarians don't eat much fish. Buettner says pirates pushed the culture up in the highlands and villagers couldn't depend on the sea as much as might be expected.
Particularly unusual to this new blue zone are the villagers' drinking habits. Tea drinking, that is. Icarians drink herbal teas every day, morning and night, Buettner says. This seems to be one of their secrets to longer living.
"We had five of these herbal teas sent to Athens and analyzed for their chemical composition," Buettner reports. "We found out that most of them were diuretics."
"It turns out that diuretics actually lower blood pressure," he says, "so when you're chronically lowering blood pressure every day with these herbal teas, that does help explain why there's lower rates of heart disease."
"That's something we haven't seen in Okinawa or Costa Rica or Sardinia or any of the other blue zones," Buettner says.