Your big fat Greek retirement community

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Mary Gustafson, McKnight's Staff Writer
Mary Gustafson, McKnight's Staff Writer

The New York Times Magazine article “The Island Where People Forget to Die” describes a Greek island that has the healing properties of the island from the TV show “Lost” and all the senior-friendly attributes of an absurdly high-end continuing care retirement community.

Researchers who study aging and nutrition have flocked to the island of Ikaria in an attempt to figure out why its inhabitants reach the age of 90 at two-and-a-half times the rate that Americans do. Ikarians also live eight to 10 years longer before succumbing to cancers and heart disease, and enjoy lower rates of depression as well as roughly a quarter of the rate of dementia, according to the article.

Somewhat predictably, island residents consume a much healthier Mediterranean diet packed with beans, goat's milk, tea, lentils, honey, yogurt, greens and plenty of wine. They get more than enough exercise from the hilly terrain and a healthy amount of natural sunlight, and they consume more herbs and antioxidants than any supplement-popping American ever could.

But islanders insist it's not what they eat that's so healthy, but the way they eat.

“Even if it's your lunch break from work, you relax and enjoy your meal. You enjoy the company of whoever you are with. Food here is always enjoyed in combination with conversation,” one resident said.

My favorite island tradition highlighted in the article was the frequent naps Ikarians take. They sleep-in most mornings, nap in the afternoons and stay up late dancing and drinking wine. Scientists who have visited Ikaria have found that occasional napping is tied to 12% reduction in coronary heart disease and that regular napping is associated with a 37% reduction.

Like the rest of Greece, Ikaria has a very high unemployment rate, but the communal lifestyle and self-sufficiency of its residents seems to keep the people from sinking into despair.

I recently spoke to a researcher who lived for a month at a CCRC nestled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in order to observe trends in senior living. She noticed that one theory that drives CCRCs is the idea that entering such a community early on in retirement can, in itself, add longevity to a resident's life because of all the wellness amenities that are available.

That's a sentiment that the author of the NYT article might agree with. As one scientist he quoted said, healthy habits can be as contagious as a virus.

On Ikaria, “It's easy to get enough rest if no one else wakes up early and the village goes dead during afternoon naptime … At day's end, you'll share a cup of the seasonal herbal tea with your neighbor because that's what he's serving. Several glasses of wine may follow the tea, but you'll drink them in the company of good friends … Even if you're anti-social, you'll never be entirely alone.”

It seems to me that the same is true in good senior living environments. Now, if Americans who are a lot farther from retirement could adopt some of these habits, we could all be a lot healthier — and happier.

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McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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