Video: Lessons for a longer life from the Blue Zones

updated 5/10/2009 8:04:47 PM ET 2009-05-11T00:04:47

Hidden somewhere on this remote, mountainous Greek island, may be the answer to one of life's most enduring questions: How can we live longer, healthier lives?

Dan Buettner is an author and adventurer researching places across the globe where people seem to live longer. Now he's come to the island of Ikaria in the Aegean Sea, where he says the rate of heart disease is half that of the U.S., and where 20 percent fewer people get cancer.

Dan Buettner: The biggest drain on America's health care system are diseases like cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes. The people here in Ikaria are eluding those diseases at incredibly high numbers.  They're getting the good years that we're missing, they tend to live longer lives, healthier, better.

Dan has studied longevity hotspots known as "Blue Zones" in Okinawa, Costa Rica, Sardinia, and among the Seventh Day Adventists in California.  He's reported his findings in the book "The Blue Zones, Lessons For Living Longer From The People Who've Lived The Longest."

Dan Buettner: Because we know only about 20 percent of how long you live is dictated by your genes, the other 80 percent is dictated by your lifestyle.  If we can go to these places and methodically tease out what these people are doing we can arrive at a de facto formula for longevity.

So what is the formula? Dateline headed to Ikaria to find out.

A short flight from Athens and we arrived on the island to meet Dan and his team of doctors, researchers, and videographers who are posting daily reports at bluezones.com.

MichelPoulain: There are 1000 ways to reach 100.

Michel Poulain is a Belgian demographer. He and his partner, Dr. Gianni Pes actually came up with the name “Blue Zone.”

MichelPoulain: What is important is not only to live longer, but to live in good health status.

Good health and long life seem to abound on Ikaria. Dan says he and his team found eight specific reasons why.

We literally got a taste of secret number one: goat’s milk.

Dan Buettner: This woman was just milking this on the side of the road. It's still, like, warm from the goat's utter. It tastes like sweet grass.  It's delicious, first time I ever drank goat's milk.  Now I can see why these people drink it.  Here, taste it.

People here drink goat's milk regularly. Dan says it's rich in tryptophan, which lowers stress hormones and is a natural anti-depressant.

Secret number two: Mountain living. People on Ikaria work hard and lead active lives, from this 11-year-old shepherd's daughter to her 93-year-old grandmother who still gets her exercise working in the garden.

Dan Buettner: We know that just living in mountains occasions more physical activity.  Not the type of physical activity you think of going to the gym or doing marathons, but just everyday moderate low intensity physical activity that explains lower heart disease and in some cases lower rates of cancer.

By the way, we're not the first people to visit to Ikaria for its health benefits.  People have been coming here for 2500 years in an attempt to cure what ails them.

Dan Buettner: The ancient Romans came to this island mainly for these hot baths. People who have arthritis will go right where it's red there and they'll put their hand or their arm or their leg, wherever their problem is right into that very hot water.

Whether these waters contribute to good health is not proven, but the evidence is in for longevity lesson number three. The Ikarian Diet--a version of the Mediterranean Diet.

Dan Buettner: The Mediterranean Diet at its core is whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and olive oil. We know that people who most strongly adhere to the Mediterranean Diet have 6 extra years of life expectancy than people who don't.

Included in that diet is secret number four -- lots of healthy greens. Over 150 varieties of wild greens grow on this island. Some have more than 10 times the level of antioxidants that red wine does. Most Ikarians can walk out their front door to harvest a healthy feast.

And if healthy living is your cup of tea....go herbal. That's lesson number five.

Dan Buettner: It's this regular, ritualistic consumption of these herbal teas that we think explains low rates of heart disease and also low rates of dementia.

We kind of like lesson number six... Get some rest. Ikarians nap regularly.

Dan Buettner: You walk in one of these villages in mid-afternoon and it's like a ghost town.  People are taking their naps and we know that people who take naps 4 times a week at least a half hour have about a 35 percent lower chance of developing heart disease.

Dan says people here have a low sense of time urgency. That's lesson number seven. Take your time.

Dan Buettner: When you ask people what time it is they say “late thirty.”  When you invite somebody to come to lunch you don't say come at noon you say come on Thursday and they may come any time between ten in the morning and six o'clock at night.

Finally, Dan's longevity lesson number eight: Embrace community and family. If possible, keep your extended family close by. He says it's good for young and old alike.

Dan Buettner: I think increasingly older people are looked at as recipients of health care or recipients of social security and in places like Ikaria here, it reminds us that older people have a lot to offer and the more we engage them the better it is for us, but also the better it is for them.

In the end, even if you don't live in the mountains or herd goats for a living, Dan says the lessons of this faraway island can be useful right here at home.

Dan Buettner: The secret, I think, for Americans is cherry-picking the best little habits, which are all portable and bringing them to our homes. You just have to take the time to listen and learn from these people.

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