The Blue Zones: A Recipe for Brain Health and Longevity, Part 1: Ikaria, Greece
Want to know a secret about health, brain function, and longevity? Your genetics only carry about 20% of the influence over them. Your choices in diet and lifestyle play a major role in determining the remaining 80%.1 Research by National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner delved into the worlds longest-lived populations. Building on longevity research in Sardinia, Italy, Buettner and his team of researchers identified other longevity hotspots around the world, including Ikaria (Greece), Sardinia (Italy), Loma Linda (USA), Nicoya Peninsula (Costa Rica) and Okinawa (Japan). They named these regions the Blue Zones, and their work suggests important practices can increase the odds of living longer with a high-quality of life. They have higher than average numbers of healthy centenarians with lower-than-average risk of chronic diseases (e.g. neurodegenerative, cardiovascular diseases, and cancers). In fact, people living in the Blue Zones have some of the lowest rates of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease compared to the rest of the world.
Despite their distant geographical locations, the communities in the five Blue Zones share common practices that add up to the perfect recipe for longevity and health. Each community puts their own cultural spin on similar dietary patterns that have commonalities with the MIND and Mediterranean diets: well-studied and evidence-backed brain-healthy diets. In general, their diets are mostly plant-based, produced locally, with healthy fats and wine in moderation. They generally eat smaller meals in the late afternoon and then stop eating for the rest of the day. Other important common denominators thought to contribute to their long-term health include: environments that naturally encourage physical activity, a sense of purpose, a sense of community and belonging, putting loved-ones first, and stress management.
In this 5-part series of articles, we’ll explore each Blue Zone region and how diet, stress reduction, sense of purpose and connection, and physical activity are incorporated into the daily lives of their residents and centenarians. We'll also share how the rest of us can take cues from their lifestyle and apply it to our own for better brain health and longer, happier lives. In part 1 of this series, we travel to Ikaria, Greece.
The Greek island of Ikaria, located in the Aegean Sea, is called “The Island Where People Forget to Die.” It’s home to the world’s lowest rates of dementia. In fact, compared to an approximately 35% risk of Alzheimer’s in the U.S. at the age of 85 2, Buettner mentions that those living on Ikaria have a less than 10% chance 3. How do the people living on Ikaria put their spin on the Blue Zones’ common denominators of longevity to achieve such a striking difference in risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s?
Ikarians consume their own version of the Mediterranean diet. Almost half of their diet is composed of vegetables and greens (fennel, dandelion, and horta – similar to spinach). There’s an emphasis on olive oil, legumes, and fruit, with moderate amounts of alcohol, and low amounts of meat and dairy. Ikarians grow many of their own vegetables in their home gardens and forage for wild greens and herbs – plants that many in the U.S. consider weeds. They make herbal teas from wild rosemary, sage, and oregano – high in antioxidants and natural diuretics. Olive oil is an important source of fat in the Ikarian diet. It contains monounsaturated fat that supports healthy cholesterol levels, promoting healthy blood flow throughout the body, including the brain. Furthermore, the way Ikarians eat, slowing down while consciously enjoying the food and the company, is an important part of their diet. For recipe ideas, check out this Ikarian Tobouli Salad or Baked Ikarian Chickpeas from Dan Buettner’s Blue Zones Kitchen.
On Ikaria, afternoon breaks help residents manage daily stress. Ikarians like to stay up late, sleep in, and take mid-afternoon naps. Regular, short naps (around 30 minutes) are thought to benefit cognition and enhance the ability to learn new information. Here, the entire town goes quiet for the afternoon, reinforcing the habit across the community. When everyone else is resting, it makes it easier to rest yourself.
Sense of Purpose and Connection
With a true sense of being part of the greater good, Ikarians focus on caring for the community as a whole, rather than on themselves. For example, they will pool money for religious celebrations, and any leftover money will be donated to the poor. The community will always ensure everyone is cared for, and will enforce the expectation that everyone contributes when they’re able. Along with this sense of responsibility to others, neighbors spend time together daily over shared wine or herbal tea. Unlike the developed world, they are always around neighbors, friends, and family. This connection to others and sense of duty to each other is considered one of the factors that is missing from an increasingly disconnected modern world.
The rocky, mountainous island of Ikaria provides an environment where its inhabitants are naturally required to walk up hills to get from one place to another. Ikarians benefit from the fact that their home hasn’t been developed in the same way as the rest of Greece (and much of the world), and without even thinking about it, they’re naturally moving around and staying active. Culturally, it’s the norm to spend a significant part of each day working in their home gardens.
Take a Cue from Ikarians
The Ikarian secrets to maintaining a healthy brain throughout their long lives begin with diet. Add in components of their Mediterranean diet- lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, olive oil, and herbal teas. Additionally, their environment encourages regular outdoor activity, which you can do by taking a walk in a park or a hike in the woods. A daily afternoon nap might not be in the cards, but you can prioritize a good night’s sleep. Like Ikarians, find opportunities to connect with loved ones, and give back to the community. Add in some of these tips and over time you’ll be setting your brain and body up with the best opportunity for long-lived health.
- Christensen, K., Holm, N. V., Mcgue, M., Corder, L. & Vaupel, J. W. A Danish Population-Based Twin Study on General Health in the Elderly:http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/08982643990110010311, 49–64 (2016).
- 2021 Alzheimer’s disease facts and figures.Alzheimer’s Dement.17, 327–406 (2021).
- Buettner, D. A Greek Island’s Ancient Secret to Avoiding Alzheimer’s - Blue Zones.https://www.bluezones.com/2018/11/a-greek-islands-ancient-secret-to-avoiding-alzheimers.