Siesta and desist from work, and avoid flying too close to the sun
A good night’s worth topped up by a siesta is the real golden thread that links the world's long-lived cultures
Not to sound smug, but I think you should know that I am going to live forever.
I don’t mean that in the way young men mean it i.e. they haven’t yet reached that shadow line in their lives dividing youth from not-youth, so they’re still literally incapable of grasping that nature won’t be making an exception for them. No, I mean that I’m taking practical measures to ensure that I will last forever. Or at any rate quite a long time.
I spent most of this year living on the island of Ikaria in the north Aegean, a far-flung and lovely expanse of hills and cliffs and forests, far off the tourist track and the itineraries of sun-red island hoppers. Ikaria is called Ikaria because it’s where Icarus fell from the sky and drowned in the sea, leaving his wings upon the water, but I tried not to think about that too much.
It takes many hours on the ferry to reach Ikaria, and once you’ve arrived and found a home there’s nothing much to do except walk and swim off the rocks and read and drink the light homemade local red wine and feel your life returning to you and you returning to yourself. The only pressing matter on Ikaria, besides learning their dance, is to figure out how the locals live so long.
Ikaria has the second-highest life expectancy in the world, after some sections of Okinawa in Japan, but unlike Okinawa, where women live longer, the gap between male and female longevity on Ikaria is hardly noticeable. On Ikaria one in three people lives into their 90s, a rate four times higher than Americans and three times higher than most of Europe. Many of them go on to make their 100, and they don’t just live long, they live well. Rates of dementia, stroke, cancer and heart attack are lower on Ikaria than anywhere else; Alzheimer’s is virtually unheard of. Wherever you go on the island you see ancient sprightly couples and individuals gently working the orchards and walking the hills, carrying baskets on their shoulders and bending to pluck sprigs of wild lavender or thyme and tuck them behind their ears. Men are apparently sexually active into their 90s, which I imagine is a mixed blessing.
Obviously, I wanted whatever they had. But what? Was it the diet? They mainly eat beans and goat, two food items that are deadlocked at the bottom of my poll of things I’d like to be eating when I’m 100. Was it the mineral-rich Ikarian wine? Sure. My policy is that when something is good it’s always the wine, but it can’t only be that, because in other specific regions with bafflingly high life expectancy – say Nicoya in Costa Rica – they don’t drink Ikarian wine. Whatever the secret is, it has to be something that’s shared with those other regions, and I would like to tell you that I have found what it is. It’s the afternoon nap.
Ikarians have very stable sleep habits. They wake late and do their chores and have lunch with a little red wine and then in the early afternoon they nap for an hour or so. In the evenings they talk to friends and neighbours and laugh and sometimes sing and then they go to bed and sleep for eight hours. The Mediterranean diet is well and good and highly regarded by people who like beans, but we should all choose our saviours, and I choose sleep. Biphasic sleep – a good continuous night’s worth topped up by a brief afternoon siesta – is the real golden thread that links the long-lived and happy cultures of the world.
It’s one thing to know that in the west adults over the age of 45 who sleep fewer than six hours a night are 200% more likely to suffer heart attack or stroke in their lives than their more snoozy pals, even controlling for factors such as smoking and drinking, but it’s the nap that’s the real game-changer. In Why We Sleep the neuroscientist Matthew Walker reports on a study conducted by Harvard’s School of Public Health, who wanted to quantify the effects on the health of urban Greek citizens who decided to abandon the daily siesta. They studied 23,000 men and women between 20 and 83.
At the beginning of the study, no participants had any history of heart disease or stroke. Six years later, those who abandoned regular siestas had a 37% increased risk of death from heart disease, compared with those who maintained them. In working men, that risk was 60%.
On Ikaria, far from cities and office hours, far even from social media and news cycles, there’s no pressure to abandon siestas and there’s nothing to keep you awake at night. Life expectancy is falling in other areas of Greece, but on Ikaria it has stayed the same. I can’t live forever on Ikaria, although I plan to spend several months there each year, but I try to take the island with me. When I finish writing this I am going to close my computer and take myself off to a dark room for my afternoon nap, and then when I wake up I will be one step closer to living forever.
I started reading Why We Sleep one dreamy summery afternoon, and I was awash in smugness to discover each new cataclysmic pitfall of getting less than a bare minimum seven hours a night. Why, I thought, since leaving the bright lights and stress of the mainland, I can’t remember a single night when I didn’t get my full quota! I have made good life choices! I am magnificent. I shall live forever!
I read all evening, shaking my head and tutting at the details of how less than seven hours a night multiplies your risk of Alzheimer’s, of depression, of putting on weight or crashing your car or catching a cold, honestly of everything bad that you can think of. Finally, at the appointed hour I switched off my light and slipped on my eye-mask and snuggled down into my pillow, smiling in pleasant anticipation of the good I was about to do to myself.
How fortunate I am to sleep so well, I thought. How lucky that it never takes more than a minute before I start to feel that lifting in the top of my head and the loosening of my facial muscles and my thoughts drifting into fiction and that sinking swirl into the happy dark … How wise I am that I have removed myself from the anxieties and dark thoughts that press upon us and keep us awake at night … I’m so lucky to be able to sleep right now because otherwise my systolic pressure would be climbing and the beta amyloids would be accreting on the walls of my brain cells and … say … why am I still thinking this? I shouldn’t still be thinking this. I should be asleep. Why aren’t I asleep? I’m normally asleep right now. Am I awake? I must fall asleep right now! Right now! This minute, buster! If I don’t sleep immediately I’ll have Alzheimer’s in the morning!
Rosy-fingered dawn found me hugging my knees, rocking back and forth, my hollow eyes staring into the sleepless night. “My beta amyloids!” I muttered, a sallow-skinned madman. “Oh, my poor, poor phagocytes!”
I’m a proselytiser for Mathew Walker’s Why We Sleep. I urge you to read it, and I think it may change your life. But learn from me; only read it in the daylight hours. Some things are too scary to read before bed.