The Island Where People Forget to Die
By Andrea Frazzetta / Source: NY Times
In 1943, a Greek war veteran named Stamatis Moraitis came to the United States for treatment of a combat-mangled arm. He'd survived a gunshot wound, escaped to Turkey and eventually talked his way onto the Queen Elizabeth, then serving as a troopship, to cross the Atlantic. Moraitis settled in Port Jefferson, N.Y., an enclave of countrymen from his native island, Ikaria. He quickly landed a job doing manual labor. Later, he moved to Boynton Beach, Fla. Along the way, Moraitis married a Greek-American woman, had three children and bought a three-bedroom house and a 1951 Chevrolet.
One day in 1976, Moraitis felt short of breath. Climbing stairs was a chore; he had to quit working midday. After X-rays, his doctor concluded that Moraitis had lung cancer. As he recalls, nine other doctors confirmed the diagnosis. They gave him nine months to live. He was in his mid-60s.
Moraitis considered staying in America and seeking aggressive cancer treatment at a local hospital. That way, he could also be close to his adult children. But he decided instead to return to Ikaria, where he could be buried with his ancestors in a cemetery shaded by oak trees that overlooked the Aegean Sea. He figured a funeral in the United States would cost thousands, a traditional Ikarian one only $200, leaving more of his retirement savings for his wife, Elpiniki. Moraitis and Elpiniki moved in with his elderly parents, into a tiny, whitewashed house on two acres of stepped vineyards near Evdilos, on the north side of Ikaria. At first, he spent his days in bed, as his mother and wife tended to him. He reconnected with his faith. On Sunday mornings, he hobbled up the hill to a tiny Greek Orthodox chapel where his grandfather once served as a priest. When his childhood friends discovered that he had moved back, they started showing up every afternoon. They'd talk for hours, an activity that invariably involved a bottle or two of locally produced wine. I might as well die happy, he thought.
In the ensuing months, something strange happened. He says he started to feel stronger. One day, feeling ambitious, he planted some vegetables in the garden. He didn't expect to live to harvest them, but he enjoyed being in the sunshine, breathing the ocean air. Elpiniki could enjoy the fresh vegetables after he was gone.
Six months came and went. Moraitis didn't die. Instead, he reaped his garden and, feeling emboldened, cleaned up the family vineyard as well. Easing himself into the island routine, he woke up when he felt like it, worked in the vineyards until midafternoon, made himself lunch and then took a long nap. In the evenings, he often walked to the local tavern, where he played dominoes past midnight. The years passed. His health continued to improve. He added a couple of rooms to his parents' home so his children could visit. He built up the vineyard until it produced 400 gallons of wine a year. Today, three and a half decades later, he's 97 years old — according to an official document he disputes; he says he's 102 — and cancer-free. He never went through chemotherapy, took drugs or sought therapy of any sort. All he did was move home to Ikaria.
The Magical Island of Longevity
I met Moraitis on Ikaria this past July during one of my visits to explore the extraordinary longevity of the island's residents. For a decade, with support from the National Geographic Society, I've been organizing a study of the places where people live longest. The project grew out of studies by my partners, Dr. Gianni Pes of the University of Sassari in Italy and Dr. Michel Poulain, a Belgian demographer. In 2000, they identified a region of Sardinia's Nuoro province as the place with the highest concentration of male centenarians in the world. As they zeroed in on a cluster of villages high in Nuoro's mountains, they drew a boundary in blue ink on a map and began referring to the area inside as the "blue zone. Starting in 2002, we identified three other populations around the world where people live measurably longer lives than everyone else. The world's longest-lived women are found on the island of Okinawa. On Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula, we discovered a population of 100,000 mestizos with a lower-than-normal rate of middle-age mortality. And in Loma Linda, Calif., we identified a population of Seventh-day Adventists in which most of the adherents' life expectancy exceeded the American average by about a decade.
In 2003, I started a consulting firm to see if it was possible to take what we were learning in the field and apply it to American communities. We also continued to do research and look for other pockets of longevity, and in 2008, following a lead from a Greek researcher, we began investigating Ikaria. Poulain's plan there was to track down survivors born between 1900 and 1920 and determine when and where individuals died. The approach was complicated by the fact that people often moved around. That meant that not only were birth and death records required, but also information on immigration and emigration.
The data collection had to be rigorous. Earlier claims about long-lived people in places like Ecuador's Vilcabamba Valley, Pakistan's Hunza Valley or the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia had all been debunked after researchers discovered that many residents didn't actually know their ages. For villagers born without birth certificates, it was easy to lose track. One year they were 80; a few months later they were 82. Pretty soon they claimed to be 100. And when a town discovers that a reputation for centenarians draws tourists, who's going to question it? Even in Ikaria, the truth has been sometimes difficult to nail down. Stories like the one about Moraitis's miraculous recovery become instant folklore, told and retold and changed and misattributed. (Stories about Moraitis have appeared on Greek TV.) In fact, when I was doing research there in 2009, I met a different man who told me virtually the exact same story about himself.
The study would try to cut through the stories and establish the facts about Ikaria's longevity. Before including subjects, Poulain cross-referenced birth records against baptism or military documentation. After gathering all the data, he and his colleagues at the University of Athens concluded that people on Ikaria were, in fact, reaching the age of 90 at two and a half times the rate Americans do. (Ikarian men in particular are nearly four times as likely as their American counterparts to reach 90, often in better health.) But more than that, they were also living about 8 to 10 years longer before succumbing to cancers and cardiovascular disease, and they suffered less depression and about a quarter the rate of dementia. Almost half of Americans 85 and older show signs of Alzheimer's. (The Alzheimer's Association estimates that dementia cost Americans some $200 billion in 2012.) On Ikaria, however, people have been managing to stay sharp to the end.Edited by: Lawyer Asad