Ikaria: "The Island of Happiness" (and Longevity)

Ikaria: "The Island of Happiness" (and Longevity)

The Greek island of Ikaria (whose name originates from the ancient myth of Icarus) is a rocky key a mere ten miles southwest of the island of Samos in the north Aegean Sea. The island is populated by some 8,500 residents and is located a seven and a half hour ferry ride from Athens. For my summer journey, I opted for the plane, but if I return in the future, I’d love to take the ferry.

map of ikaria greece aegean sea

Ikaria does not share Mykonos’ or Santorini’s touristic draw to the same degree. Its waters glitter a pristine cerulean and its total mass covers less than 100 square miles It is relatively quiet, and Ikarians are notoriously stress-free. As I explored the island, I noticed the apparent joy and lightheartedness of its people. Young and old chatted on cafe patios and offered me meals. Laughter could be heard in most parts of the village, even into the night.

Archaeological evidence suggests the island has been populated in varying densities since around 700 B.C. In the fifth century B.C. it is believed that the island housed nearly 13,000 residents. Throughout the centuries, it has endured rule under the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, as well as both French and German occupation during the Second World War. The island, which had originally belonged to ancient Greece in the eighth century B.C., formally re-joined Greece in 1912.

Ikaria Sunset

Today, the island’s unique culture endures. Ikarians make strong red wine and its population is almost entirely Greek Orthodox. Families remain in physical proximity to one another for generatins.

A tradition that has defied all time and circumstance is that of the Panigiri. Panigiris are festive dances held during the summer months in accordance with holy saints’ days. The host of a Panigiri is given the honor of keeping the respective saint’s icon housed in their home for a year before the date of the saint’s festival. The icon is brought forward on the day of the celebration and is formally blessed in a Greek Orthodox liturgy. What ensues is a boisterous and beautiful celebration in which members of all generations dance from dusk to dawn. There is no shortage of fresh olives, cod, meats, and wines, either.

Pangiri Dance

Young and old spotted dancing through the night at a summer Panigiri, August 2017

Ikaria has received a great deal of media attention over the last decade due to its “Blue Zone” designation. A Blue Zone is a place where residents have greater odds to live to be centenarians. Ikaria may indeed be one of the densest Blue Zones in the world. I was amazed as I strolled the pale cobbled streets, centenarians hobbling easily past—it seems these 100+ year-old citizens hardly merit a second glance to most Ikarians.

Researcher and author Dan Beuttner specializes in Blue Zone studies. He found that one in three Ikarians make it into their 90s and that Ikaria is home to the highest percentage of 90-year-olds on the globe. Buettner claims Ikarians have a nearly 20 percent lower chance of developing cancer, a 50 percent lower chance of heart disease, and cited few to no cases of dementia (source: NPR).

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While genetic luck may account for 20 percent of expected longevity rates, it has been proven that the remaining 80 percent is largely due to diet and lifestyle. Ikarians grow grapes and produce wine, and they consume high amounts of olive oil and organic produce, which they harvest themselves. Most drink a local diuretic herbal tea twice daily, which may lower blood pressure and contribute to a healthy physique. Lifestyle factors contributing to their outstanding longevity likely include fresh air, low levels of stress, a strong sense of community, and physical activity such as dancing at summer Panigiris.

My time in Ikaria was filled with much of the same, and I can’t help but feel connected in a deep way to this tiny island.

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