It was to the island of Icaria where, at the age of 66, Stamatis Moraitis went to die.
Diagnosed by his American doctor with lung cancer and given 6 months to live, Stamatis moved back to his native Icaria, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, in part because funeral costs were one tenth of what they were in the US, where he had spent most of his life.
After a few months back on Icaria, feeling a bit better, he planted a garden. As time passed, he cleaned up his family’s old vineyard. He immersed himself into the routine of the island’s everyday life, eating its version of the Mediterranean diet, working physically hard during the day, socializing with friends at the local tavern in the evening, sleeping thoroughly at night.
Years passed. In fact 36 years would pass when, at the age of 102 and still actively tending his vines, he was asked the secret to his longevity. He shrugged and said “I guess I forgot to die.”
Stamatis may be particularly fortunate: in returning home to Icaria, he returned to a “Blue Zone,” one of a handful of small regions around the world where, according to National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner, people live long, healthy, fulfilling lives, disproportionate to the rest of us.
Buettner, who has written several books and numerous articles on the subject, studied these regions carefully to see what made them different. His work is fascinating. Much of his research focuses on diet, and while each of his Blue Zones has unique diet characteristics — Sardinians drink a lot of goat’s milk, Okinawans eat a lot of sweet potatoes — there are common traits as well: largely plant based, a high consumption of legumes, little to no red meat.
Beyond diet, Buettner discovered other commonalities. Low rates of smoking, constant physical activity (often associated with work and chores), and lifestyles that incorporate a great deal of social engagement.
Blue Zones are also characterized by a certain amount of removal from much of what has become ubiquitous in our larger, modern world. So people in Blue Zones don’t have access to much processed or packaged foods; they aren’t constantly in front of isolating smart phone and computer screens; and they consume scant amounts of simple sugars.
As a result of all this, not only do folks in Blue Zones live longer, their lives are measurably better, with far fewer cases of heart disease, cancers, dementia, and diabetes than the rest of the world.
This is all of particular interest to me as, over the last 10 years working here at Weavers Way, I’ve noticed something quite fascinating about our older members. I’ve conducted no research, and I have no evidence beyond my anecdotal observations, but in and around the Co-op I see — probably on a daily basis — examples of seniors living lives uncharacteristically more robust than most folks their age.
Now I can’t say that we have a Blue Zone here at Weavers Way — Buettner’s trademarked the term and I’m not looking for trouble! — but there’s something about this place that’s worth thinking about.
Spend any appreciable amount of time at the Co-op and you will soon observe lots of people in their 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, who are living active, fulfilling lives, often free or nearly free of obesity, diabetes, even conditions like high blood pressure and arthritis.
They ride their bikes to go grocery shopping, they run marathons, they are community volunteers, they maintain blogs and social media pages, and they are politically active. They are, in many ways, the heart of our community.
They are not devoid of health problems, and things like cancer and chronic disease can strike with a randomness that is both scary and sobering. But by-and-large our seniors have a zest for life that transcends the typical.
What could be the common characteristics of Co-op seniors? Diet is undeniably a big part of this, and for those who are committed to a healthy diet, I do believe there’s no place like Weavers Way.
Perhaps just as important as diet are all the opportunities around here for social engagement. Need proof? Hang out in any of our stores on Senior Tuesdays. Come to the Friday Community Dinner in Ambler. Attend a meeting of any of our numerous active committees.
There’s also the amazing Northwest Village Network (not directly associated with Weavers Way, though many of its members are also members of the Co-op) which supports its members by helping them stay active and be socially engaged in the community.
It might just be possible that the secrets to a long, healthy, and fulfilling life are right here in plain sight. Relocation to a remote Greek island not required.
Stamatis Moraitis’ story is an inspiring one, but it is even more inspiring to have real-life examples of healthy, active seniors surround you every day.
See you around the Co-op.