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Life’s about living healthier, not longer

columns Updated: Apr 13, 2013 22:22 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times
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You may have heard it, the story about Stamatis Moraitis, the Greek who moved to the US in 1943 from his home in the island of Ikaria in the Aegean Sea. In 1976, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and given nine months to live. When nine other doctors confirmed the diagnosis, he refused to get treated and went home to Greece to die. But he didn’t.

Instead, Moriartis became the poster child longevity. He died two month ago at the age of 98 or 102, depending on whether you believe a suspect official document or his equally suspect memory, 36 years after doctors had given him nine months to live. A decade ago, he went back to the US to ask his doctors how he had beaten his cancer. He came back with no answers. All his doctors were dead.

Moriartis was not an anomaly on his tiny island of Ikaria, which is home to 10,000 people. Here people reach 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 Americans to reach 90. They develop cancers and heart disease a decade later than the rest of the world, with lower depression and dementia, shows a University of Athens study.

Moriartis and friends credited their longevity on wine, fresh air, sunshine and siesta. Add to that a largely begetrean diet of locally-grown fruits and vegetables and hours and hours of tramping up and down the craggy Ikarian landscape and you’ll realise that pretty much live the life recommended by health experts.

Like many Ikarians, every second child born in Sweden will live to be over 100 years old, but that has more to do with its efficient decentralised, government-funded healthcare system. In Sweden, diseases are diagnosed early and treated and managed quickly, which helps people survive infections and conditions that would have killed them had they lived in poorer parts of the world, except perhaps in Ikaria.

You need good and affordable healthcare to live long, but it’s not enough to keep you healthy. Though people today are living longer, they are less healthy than their parents and grandparents, shows data from more than 6,000 people over 16 years in the Netherlands. After measuring for diabetes, stroke and heart disease triggers such as high body weight, blood pressure and “bad”, cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein) and protective factors such as “good” cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein), researchers concluded that “the more recently born generations are doing worse” .

“The prevalence of metabolic risk factors and the lifelong exposure to them have increased and probably will continue to increase,” they warn in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology. Results showed that overweight, obesity and hypertension increased with age in all generations, but each generation had more risk factors than people born a decade ago. For example, if 40% men in their 30s were overweight; 11 years later the prevalence of overweight in men in their 30s increased to 52%. In women, obesity doubled in just 10 years.

In India, life expectancy has gone up from 32 years in 1947 to 69.80 years in 2008 (Census of India, 2011), but people are not necessarily healthier. Overeating and inactivity have made lifestyle diseases such as heart disease and stroke are the number one cause of death, with diabetes — which affects one in seven adults — complicating treatment and recovery from almost all infections and diseases. People are also getting these diseases two decades earlier than they were in the 60s, which means that even if you live longer than your grandfather, you would be doing so in a sicker condition.

Since moving to idyllic islands in the Aegean is not an option for most of us, we can do the next best thing - live the Ikarian life wherever we are. It may be tough on your soles, but the benefits to your mind and body will more than make up for it.