The Greek Island Where People Live to Be 90 – Is it the Coffee?

Forget the expression “there must be something in the water.” As it turns out, the secret to longevity could be in a specific brew of coffee.

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The Greek island Ikaria first made national news when The New York Times published an article about its inhabitants called “The Place Where People Forget to Die.” One percent of Ikaria’s inhabitants live well into their 90s (as compared to the rest of Europe’s .01 percent), and they tend to stay sharp and healthy until the very end.

The article pointed to a number of reasons why Ikarians live so long: lack of pollution, a diet heavy in fruits and vegetables, moderate consumption of wine, and, interestingly, coffee brewed by a method of boiling.

Because general coffee consumption has been previously associated with various health benefits including protection against type two diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and liver disease, researchers led by Dr. Gerasimos Siasos of the University of Athens set out to discover if the Ikarians’ regular consumption of boiled coffee, specifically, could be connected to their longevity.

"This boiled Greek type of coffee, which is rich in polyphenols and antioxidants and contains only a moderate amount of caffeine, seems to have more health benefits compared to other coffee beverages," Dr. Siasos told Yahoo! Shine.

From the group of 673 Ikarians over 65 who live on the island, the research team randomly selected 71 men and 71 women and compared their endothelial function with their coffee consumption. The endothelium is the layer of cells that surround blood vessels—over time, due to aging and lifestyle habits, it breaks down, leading to cardiovascular disease.

The results of the study, which was published March 18 in the journal Vascular Medicine, showed that subjects who consumed a moderate amount of boiled Greek coffee had better endothelial function than those who consumed coffee brewed by other methods. “Even in those with high blood pressure, boiled Greek coffee consumption was associated with improved endothelial function, without worrying impacts on blood pressure,” Siasos told Shine. 

“The new study provides a new connection between nutritional habits and cardiovascular health. Given the extent of coffee drinking across the world, and the fact that even small health effects of at least one type of coffee could have a large impact on public health, this study provides an interesting starting point,” Siasos said. “However, further studies are needed to document the exact beneficial mechanisms of coffee on cardiovascular health.”

Dr. Rob van Dam, an Assistant Professor of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, also recommends that coffee drinkers assess the results of this study with some degree of caution. “We should not make nutrition recommendations based on a single study. Moreover, this was a rather small cross-sectional study. Participants who consumed traditional Greek coffee may well have had other traditional habits such as a healthy diet that may have been responsible for their better endothelial function,” he explained to Yahoo! Shine.

Dr. van Dam also points out that coffee contains cafestol, a stimulator of LDL cholesterol levels, and that those with high cholesterol should avoid boiled coffee. “When you brew coffee with a paper filter, the cafestol gets left behind in the filter. Other methods of coffee preparation, such as the boiled coffee common in Scandinavian countries, French press coffee, or Turkish coffee, are much higher in cafestol. So for people who have high cholesterol levels or who want to prevent having high cholesterol levels, it is better to choose paper filtered coffee or instant coffee, since they have much lower levels of cafestol than boiled or French press coffee.”

Others agree that the results of the study should be taken with a grain of salt, or perhaps, sugar. Matt Milletto, the Vice President of the American Barista & Coffee School in Portland, Oregon, told Yahoo! Shine that Greek coffee is usually prepared with sugar. “I doubt that three teaspoons full of white sugar do wonders for your health.”

But, if you don’t suffer from high cholesterol, and you’d like to give Greek coffee a try, you’re in luck: it’s easy to make at home. “This is a regional style of coffee preparation, and could easily be replicated by grinding coffee very fine (on a burr grinder) and bringing the water and coffee to a boil,” Milletto told Shine. “This method dates back to Ethiopia, the birth place of coffee. Coffee does not grow in Greece, so roasted coffee from your local coffee roaster could be a good choice.”

Related links:

Top 10 Perks of Coffee
Coffee Drinkers May Live Longer
Is Coffee a Health Drink? 5 Ways Your Java Does Your Body Good