A blue zone – or a red one?


Icaria is a Greek island in the Aegean Sea with an area of 255 km2 and some 8,300 all-year inhabitants. Icaria has a dark history, the Ikariótes (Icarians) have suffered hard times. In spite of this – or because of this? – they have become one of the world’s five “Blue Zones” = a demographically confirmed geographical area where people live measurably longer.

One in three make it to their 90s on Icaria. Why is this?

The Ikarian diet and lifestyle has become famous for the health benefits it brings. According to Christina Chryshoou, researcher at the University of Athens, almost the entire Ikarian population is free of chronic disease and dementia, with sexual activity until their late 80s. A daily routine that includes taking naps, drinking herbal teas, gathering with friends and family, exercising by walking and tending to gardens have all influenced this.

The “blue zone” term was coined ten years ago by Belgian demographer Michel Poulain and Italian statistician Gianni Pes and have since been explored by many, among them American adventurer David Buettner who wrote a series of articles on blue zones for National Geographic magazine. Buettner states: “Our life spans are about 20 per cent dictated by our genes, the rest is lifestyle. People in Icaria live in mountain villages that necessitate activity every day. They also have a diet that’s very interesting, It’s very high in olive oil; it’s very high in fruits and vegetables. It’s also very high in greens; about 150 kinds of veggies grow wild on the island. These greens have somewhere around 10 times the level of antioxidants in red wine.”

Swedish Michelin-star chef Niklas Ekstedt just published a book on Blue Food [1] and Icaria has been described in the New York Times, The Guardian and on CNN.

NY Times

All of this is a bit strange since Icaria lacks a good harbour, ferry transports are irregular and the short landing strip is very windy. The average income is very low and the unemployment rate is very high. Icaria is both famous and infamous, nicknamed the “Red Island”, a Greek prison from the late 1940’s and into the 1970’s.

While most concentration camps in afterwar Greece were thinly inhabited islands with inadequate supplies of potable water, Icaria never turned into a penal colony and there was never a shortage of water or food. As many as five thousand prisoners were on the island at any one time and about thirty thousand eventually passed through, The Icarians welcomed the detainees, who were exclusively men, forced to take care of themselves in the open-air prison island. Many were highly educated, exiled doctors assisted the islanders, some men gave lessons in foreign languages and lectures on literature. Engineers, architects and agricultural experts offered their services in exchange for food and shelter.

By 1949, the island’s population, a combination of civilians and prisoners, was 17,000. In every village, there were prisoners often lodging free of charge, repairing and living in old houses, and even staying in barns. The government’s decision to use the island as a locale for exiles without investing in the infrastructure of the island or in the upkeep of the prisoners completed the pauperization and radicalization of Icaria.

In 1950, the Greek minister of internal security proposed that the armed forces drop a bomb on Icaria extinguishing detainees and Icarians alike and thus delivering Greece from the cancer of Icaria [2].

Mikis Theodorakis spent two years as a prisoner here, recalling the experience with pleasure. ”How could this be?” he asked. “The answer is simple: it’s the beauty of the island in combination with the warmth of the locals. They risked their lives to be generous to us, something that helped us more than anything bear the burden of the hardship.”

In National Geographics magazine, one of the island’s few doctors was quoted by David Buettner: “Icaria is not a ‘me’ place. It’s an ‘us’ place.”

How did Icaria become a blue zone? Is there a recipe, a concept? Can we enter the new year 2016 with a formula that will we make our lives just as long and healthy as the Icarians’?

This is what I have learned: Stay distant; Don’t get upset about bad communications, misgovernment and stupid bureaucracy; Eat local food; Work hard all your life even after 80 and never retire; Don’t be alone; Treat your family, neighbours and foreigners with love, curiosity and respect; Have more sex; Take a nap in the afternoon; Be sure there is a reason to get out of bed every morning.

Simply put: live like people do on small islands.

Pic 4 Icaria 2 Icaria map

[1] Ekstedt and Ennart Den blå maten, 2015

[2] Papalas Rebels and Radicals, 2005



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.