Greek Australians’ guide to a long life

In The Australian last week Cameron Stewart reported that the “original Greeks” are living a longer life than their non-Greek peers and other non-Anglo groups.

The Mediterranean diet and an adherence to cultural traditions seem to be the reason. Extended family, communal life, and social networks, all add years.

Holding onto traditions, “extends your life,” Stewart wrote in The Oz.

Traditions, mainly from rural Greece, which have been lost in Greece’s cities, are keeping our elders alive for longer.

“These original Greek Australians are the miracle migrants, -enjoying a life expectancy that is not only greater than that of other Australians, but also one of the highest in the world,” Stewart wrote.

According to the ABC‘s health expert, Dr Norman Swan, these Greeks, in their 80s and 90s, have 35 per cent lower mortality rate than locally born Australians.

Yet, these “original Greeks” are not the picture of health, at least on paper.

They have a higher prevalence of cardiovascular risk factors, like diabetes, and high blood pressure than the general population.

Dr Swan calls this ‘the Greek paradox.’ In his book So You Think You Know What’s Good For You? he puts down these Greek’s longevity to tradition as much as to diet.

When our grandparents and parents arrived in Australia, they did adopt the Australian diet: high calorie, high saturated fats, including lots of red meat, sugar, and white bread. These foods were absent from the lives of a rural post war Greeks. They were also symbols of new plenty.

The Oz talked to some of the Greeks who live a ‘good life.’ The 84-year-old Jim Stratos said that he lived two lives.

“Outside this house, it is 100 per cent Aussie. Inside this house, I am 100 per cent Greek.”

His wife Georgia – in her 80s – said that “Everything is Greek in here. We talk Greek, we eat Greek, the music is Greek, we dance Greek”.

When Jim arrived in 1952, he, like others of his generation, began to eat like an Aussie. Bacon and eggs, steak and eggs, butter and milk, white bread, and lots of red meat. He even loved Four ‘n Twenty meat pies.

Jim now acknowledges that Greek food is better in taste and for his health.

The much-lauded Mediterranean diet was a diet born of poverty. It was based on local – olive oil, home grown vegetables, wild greens, fish (on coastal regions), legumes, rye and other dark breads and limited read meat.

Meat was for the wealthy and only on special occasions.

Dr Swan says the post-war Greek immigrants aged and returned to a rural Greek Orthodox diet. Diet, he says, is only a small part of why our elders live longer.

The golden mean, or the Aristotelian ‘good life’ is the core. Olive oil and vegetables with little red meat, a garden bearing fruit, vegetables and citrus, moderate daily exercise, (in the form of a walk), and lots of lively social and family networks are the key to their longevity.

The 94-year-old Yiannoula Darmos, told The Oz that she does in Australia what she did in her small village back home. Her late husband Andrew died five years ago at 96, “not particularly old” she said.

They migrated to Melbourne in 1963, she got a job sewing in a factory and Andrew worked as a labourer. They were both determined to remain as Greek as possible. The food was always Greek and fast food was hardly ever seen in their home.

Helen also put her long life down to laughing. “Maybe it is not the food,” she said. “Maybe it is laughing. Laughing is always the best medicine,” she told The Oz.

Another group of Greeks which match Australia’s “original Greeks’” long life, are those from the island of Ikaria.

According to the NEO-LIFE science magazine, the Ikariots are the finest example of “moderation as a form of cultural expression”.

“Olive oil 5–7 times a week, fruits, and vegetables 4–5 times per week, fish twice, meat once, and a cup of coffee and a glass of wine on either end of their day.”

Over 80 per cent of the island’s inhabitants take up “moderate physical activity”, such as long walks or work their fields. Up to 50 per cent observe religious fasting, and during Lent it requires 40 days of no meat or dairy. Most take a midday siesta.

Ikariots, like Australia’s post-war Greeks, have strong communal and family bonds.

According to Dr Swan, these Greeks’ long life is down to traditions like a Mediterranean diet, eating as family, fasting, community, and friends.

In the end, as the 94-year-old Yiannoula Darmos said, it comes to “lots of laughing”.