‘Olive oil is why I’m still here’: Greek Australians share their secrets to living a long life

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The Weekend Australian Magazine paid tribute to Greek migrants in Australia on Sunday with a special feature looking at how they enjoy a life expectancy that is not only greater than that of other Australians, but also one of the highest in the world.

According to the article, in the 1980s when Australian researchers first examined anecdotal evidence that Greek Australians were living longer, they were stunned to find that the data indicated they were the ­second longest-lived population in the world behind Japanese immigrants in Hawaii.

It showed that these Greek-born Australians were even out­living their counterparts back in Greece. There have been no recent ­studies to ­suggest this has changed.

But what makes their ­longevity even more mys­terious is that this group have a higher prevalence of cardiovascular risk factors such as ­obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure than the general population.

Helen and Theo Zafirakos. Picture: Julian Kingma.

In 2017, Greek-born Australians had a median age at death of 83.4 years compared with 81.4 for Australians born here, while enjoying a ­significantly lower mortality rate from all major ­diseases.

What’s their secret to a long life?

So in their search for answers, researchers such as Associate Professor Antigone Kouris-Blazos from La Trobe ­University, Professor Catherine Itsiopoulos from Melbourne’s RMIT University and Dr Tania Thodis, who is a dietician, have tried to work out what differentiates this cohort from the rest of the country.

Thodis’s 2019 PhD research found that 75 per cent of first-generation Greek migrants were keeping a vegetable garden into their eighties, while 90 per cent were still going to church and practising religious fasting. 

The Mediterranean diet.

The American Heart Association says regular fasting is linked to lower rates of heart failure and improved metabolism, promoting the chance of living a long and healthy life.

According to the article, Greek cuisine is naturally high in antioxidants, with studies showing it also has numerous health ­benefits including helping prevent gut diseases and strengthening immunity.

“There is something about the way they eat that helps them get away with risk factors,” Thodis tells The Weekend Australian Magazine.

“They are not healthier – they still have higher rates of diabetes, blood pressure, heart disease etc but somehow they still get away with it and end up living longer. Maybe it is something to do with gut microbiomes because they are eating a lot of fibre.”

The Greek migrants interviewed for the article agreed, with most pointing to their Greek diet as well.

Jim and Georgia Stratos. Picture: Julian Kingma.

“I’m living a long time because my wife is an excellent cook, we use olive oil, we eat fish with lemon, we eat moussaka, spanakopita, lamb on a spit,” Jim Stratos, who is a first-generation Greek migrant who arrived in Melbourne in 1952, tells The Weekend Australian.

“Olive oil is the reason why we are still here,” 75-year old, Helen Zafirakos, adds as she sits with her 84-year-old husband Theo near the vegetable patch in the backyard of their home in Vermont South, in Melbourne’s east.

“When I came to ­Australia from Greece, Australians always used butter. I never liked butter.”

Later, the former factory workers rethinks her answer to why the original Greeks have lived such long and healthy lives in their adopted ­Australia, saying cheekily: “Maybe it is not the food… Maybe it is laughing. Laughing is always the best medicine.”

Source: The Weekend Australian Magazine.

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