What is the Secret of Longevity?
By Jane Fryer
The Daily Mail
IKARIA, where 80 per cent of men aged 65-100 are still sexually active
Giorgos Stenos is a spectacularly fine figure of a man. He has gleaming golden skin, a lustrous silver moustache, a dangerous glint in his eye and long, surprisingly muscular legs. ‘I was high-jump champion at school and my legs are still very, very strong,’ he says, looking at me sternly. ‘I am full of fire.’
He certainly is. He works ten-hour days running his beekeeping business, with 60 hives and three allotments to tend, walks miles over vertiginous terrain and has a spring in his step like that of a mountain goat.
On top of all that, his sight and hearing are perfect (‘I can hear a flea when it’s singing’) and his weight is the same as when he was 18.
Also, he dances like an angel — twisting, tangoing and stamping through the cobbled streets of Raches, a village on Greek island Ikaria. ‘I like to dance with women who are much, much younger than me. Maybe in their 20s or 30s,’ he tells me. ‘Beautiful women are like bouquets on a table — without them we cannot survive!’
Giorgio is 88 with four children, two grandchildren and is expecting a great grand-daughter. But on this island (population 10,000) he’s considered a young buck.
88-year-old Giorgio (who looks 30 years younger)
with journalist Jane Fryer on the Greek island of Ikaria
People here on Ikaria longer. On average — and proven by countless scientific studies that have seen the island included in the World’s five ‘Blue Zones’ of longevity — a good ten years longer than the rest of us. And not just longer, but better. Instead of winding down in their 70s, they remain fiercely independent into their 80s, 90s and often 100s.
On and on they go, tending their gardens, their goats and their crops, eating home-made wild greens and cheese pies, dancing, drinking sweet, strong wine, smoking more than seems sensible, staying up late, sleeping like tops, getting up when they feel like it, and embracing life with vim and vigour.
If that wasn’t enough to make others move here, it now transpires that the lucky old Ikarians are also busy having sex — often, successfully and happily — far longer than the rest of us.
More than 80 per cent of Ikarian men aged 65 to 100 are sexually active — twice that in other Western countries — apparently all thanks to their healthy Mediterranean diet and, in particular, the amount of oil olive they consume. Between 50 and 80 gallons a head a year! (Scientists claim that as well as encouraging better and deeper sleep, the beneficial effects on the heart results in very low levels of erectile dysfunction.)
Just imagine being able to happily, perkily, lustily, go about your life, watering your tomatoes, tending your goats and having enough energy left for an active sex life in your late 80s and 90s!
So here I am, eating cheese pie, sipping coffee, meeting some of the world’s most virile older men (and, presumably, women) asking just how they do it.
Quizzing an 88-year-old man you have only just met and who doesn’t speak English about his sex life is a delicate business, particularly when he’s showing off his beloved bees. So we sit on a dry stone wall overlooking Giorgos’s yellow and blue hives and — with the tinkle of goat bells in our ears and the hot, heady scent of sweet pines in our noses — he tells me about the bedroom activities of his friends, instead.
‘One is 95 and has regular sex with his wife — once a week,’ he tells me. ‘This is not unusual. Not at all. A man who doesn’t like women has a sickness!’
Another (unnamed) elderly villager had a check-up with his doctor recently and, asked if he was coping okay with everything he needed to do, replied jauntily: ‘I can do everything, chores, jobs — absolutely everything — that I need to.’ He is 92.
It only takes a day or two on this idyllic island to notice the men do have a certain gleam, a bounce. They almost all look younger than they are. Octogenarians look closer to 60. Many 90-somethings don’t need a stick to walk.
In the mornings, they beetle into town to drink strong coffee and play backgammon.
Later, after a late lunch — liberally doused in olive oil, of course — and a long siesta, they gently sip wine through their moustaches.
Often, conversations go on until the early hours.
‘There is no greater wealth than meeting 50 or 100 friends and exchanging smiles,’ says Giorgos who, other than the odd business trip to Athens, has never left the island. ‘When I feel I’ve had enough of Ikaria, maybe I’ll travel. But not yet. I love it more every day.’
The women are just as perky. Maria Sardis, 86, lives in the village of Nas with Iakovos, her husband of 62 years, in a whitewashed house festooned with flowers and gourds, and welcomes visitors to drink coffee, wine and chat, day and night.
She runs three apartments, grows all the vegetables she needs, makes her own olive oil and with her chestnut bob, slim ankles and shiny hairgrip looks positively girlish.
Today she’s counting down the hours until the village festival which will go on until 8am the next day. Both she and her husband, also aged 86, will stay up all night.
‘There is plenty of time for sleep afterwards,’ she says. ‘We Ikarians love life, we walk, we work hard, we eat well, the spirit is happy and open. We are born happy, not miserable.’
She doesn’t worry about her husband’s smoking. ‘I don’t get cross because an open heart overcomes stress’. Looking at him with a wink, she says: ‘He has always been a good man. Very good.’
Everyone I speak to is dauntingly on the ball, whether it’s discussing international politics (‘We watch and are aware but are happy to be living here,’ says Maria), or recounting stories of the horrors of the Italian and German occupations during the war when food and clothing were scarce, the round-trip to the nearest town was a ten-hour walk and the schools had no pens, paper or books.
Maria had just two years of education. ‘It hasn’t stopped me. I don’t feel I have missed out. I can read, I can write, I can add up.’ she says.
Doctor Elias Leiriadis (who is 62 but, naturally, looks about 48) is thrilled his older patients are still living such fulfilling lives, but is not surprised and is not in the habit of prescribing Viagra. ‘There’s a medical saying: “If a man can climb two flights of stairs, he can have sex”, because the effort involved in each activity is similar.’
As Dr Leiriadis points out, to have good sex you need more than a few hundred gallons of olive oil. He says: ‘You need both the energy to do it and you must want to do it. “The old people here are fit, eat frugally but healthily and socialise,’ he says. ‘They’re happy, they live with purpose. So they want sex. It is satisfying the appetite. And of course, that makes them even happier.’
And round and round it goes.
Happiness levels in Ikaria are startling. Despite people having endured almost unbearably tough working lives — 14-hour days tending scattered small-holdings.
Their unofficial motto is: ‘Neighbour first, God second, don’t fight, find inner peace and don’t stress.’ This is a world where no one bothers with seat-belts, cares much for phones or looks at the clock.
They get up when they wake up, have a siesta of between one and four hours every afternoon and go to bed when they’re tired — often at one or two in the morning. Everyone helps everyone.
Last month, when a local family needed to pay for urgent overseas medical treatment for a sick relative, the village held a party and raised 17,000 euros.
Ikaria has always been a bit different. Named after Icarus — the reckless son of Daedalus who flew too close to the sun in his feather and wax wings and crashed into the sea — it has always felt separate from the rest of Greece, a bit unsupported, a bit adrift.
It’s a ten-hour boat trip from Athens. Until 40 years ago there were no proper roads. The first supermarket opened in 2014. But the health-giving properties have long been the stuff of legend. In Byzantine times, visitors were attracted by the thermal springs. More recently, numerous scientists have visited to study why people live so long here.
‘There’s something in the air, the way we live, the way we love,’ says Maria, who suffered bowel disease in 2004 and was temporarily paralysed but recovered.
There are countless stories of how Ikarians who moved away and became ill, returned to the island to die among their beloved olive groves, only to find their cancer mysteriously disappear. Dementia is pretty much unheard of, with virtually no cases of Alzheimer’s, heart disease is rare and the island’s only care home has recently been closed down through lack of customers.
But back to sex. Because while the old men enjoy life’s carnal pleasures, where does that leave the women? According to Dr Leiriadis, the sexual dynamics for older couples work best when the wives are five or ten years younger. But I meet plenty of very happily married couples of all ages. Antiopi and Alexos Koufadakis have been married for 58 years. Home is a smallholding carved out of a mountain, accessible only by a stone staircase.
But that doesn’t bother them as they hop up and down tending their goats, dogs, cats, and sheep and making olive oil — they consume more than 70 gallons a year.
Alexos, 88, sports hair as thick and lush as the roof of a freshly thatched cottage. Antiopi, 84, looks about 55 and is as light on her feet as a ballet dancer. She does daily exercises with an elasticated chest expander which hangs from the rafters of their lean-to. She had bowel cancer in her 40s while living in Athens but, naturally, since returning to Ikaria 25 years ago, has been a picture of health.
As we drink coffee and eat cake and chocolates, they tell me that understanding, kindness and treating each other like a brother are the secrets to a happy marriage.
Of course they row occasionally. ‘I get very angry and shout when he pretends to be deaf and refuses to wash,’ says Antiopi. But they still make each other laugh. ‘God bless we do!’ says Alexos. ‘It is very important.’ Above all, they enjoy their daily pleasures. Antiopi likes doing housework and admiring her spectacular geranium display. Alexos tends the goats.
When I ask about romance, they are firm. ‘We feel strongly for one another,’ says Antiopi. ‘We are not romantic but we are part of each other.’
Of course, not everyone’s life is blissful. Everyone has their burdens, their grief, their hardships, but they deal with them with courage and good humour.
Giorgos’ wife has been bedridden for years — but he remains cheerful. ‘Life is about being happy. I’m too in love with my friends and my life to get lonely,’ he says, adding with a wolfish grin: ‘Because even if you can’t swim, you can still taste the sea.’
Later that evening I see him in the village square, striding up and down, conducting what he calls ‘diplomatic relations’ with his friends and looking like the cat that got the cream — or should that be the olive oil?