In 1970 Yiannis Karimalis got a death sentence. Doctors in Pennsylvania diagnosed the Greek immigrant with abdominal cancer and told him he'd be dead within a year. He was not yet 40 years old.
Devastated, Karimalis left his job as a bridge painter and returned to his native island of Ikaria. At least there he could be buried among his relatives, he thought—and for a lot less money than in the United States. Thirty-nine years later, Karimalis is still alive and telling his amazing story to anyone who will listen. And when he returned to the States on a recent visit, he discovered he had outlived all the doctors who had predicted his death.
On Ikaria, a mountainous, 99-square-mile island, residents tell this story to illustrate something they've known all their lives: on average, Ikarians outlive just about everyone else in the world.
For three weeks in April, I led a scientific expedition to Ikaria to investigate the reasons for the islanders' remarkable longevity. It was part of my research into the earth's few Blue Zones: places where an extraordinarily high proportion of natives live past 90.
Our team of demographic and medical researchers — funded by AARP and National Geographic — found that an amazing one in three Ikarians reaches 90. (According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only one in nine baby boomers will.)
Most astonishing of all: among the islanders over 90 whom the team studied — about one-third of Ikaria's population who are 90 and older — there was virtually no Alzheimer's disease or other dementia. In the United States more than 40 percent of people over 90 suffer some form of this devastating ailment.
How do we explain these numbers? History tells part of the story.