University of Minnesota

“If It Isn’t Fun.” – The Low-Coronary-Risk Male

I wrote this rococo piece on the low-risk male during the 1970 Seven Countries Study survey in Crete. It was later published in the American Journal of Cardiology, and is reprinted here with permission.

Maybe you have heard this now classic satire by Gordon Myers of Boston on the “theoretical low-coronary-risk male:”

“An effeminate municipal worker or embalmer, completely lacking in physical and mental alertness and without drive, ambition or competitive spirit, who has never attempted to meet a deadline of any kind. A man with poor appetite, subsisting on fruits and vegetables laced with corn and whale oil; detesting tobacco, spurning ownership of radio, TV or motor car; with full head of hair and scrawny and unathletic in appearance yet constantly straining his puny muscles by exercise; low in income, blood pressure, blood sugar, uric acid, and cholesterol; who has been taking nicotinic acid, pyridoxine, and long-term anticoagulant therapy ever since his prophylactic castration.”

In contrast to this distortion, let me sketch the truly “low-coronary-risk male” whose existence and way of life on the Isle of Crete we have observed and documented in the Seven Countries Study:

He is a shepherd or small farmer, a beekeeper or fisherman, or a tender of olives or vines.

He walks to work daily and labors in the soft light of his Greek isle, midst the droning of crickets and the bray of distant donkeys, in the peace of his land.

At the end of a morning’s work, he rests and socializes with cohorts at the local café under a grape trellis, celebrating the day with a cool glass of lemonade and a single, hand-rolled, hand-cured cigarette of long-leafed Macedonian tobacco.

He continues the siesta with a meal and nap at home and returns refreshed to complete the day’s work.

His midday main meal at home is of eggplant, with large livery mushrooms and feta, crisp vegetables, and country bread dipped in the nectar that is golden Cretan olive oil.

Once a week there is a bit of lamb, naturally spiced from grazing in thyme-filled pastures.

Once a week there is chicken.

Twice a week there is fish fresh from the sea.

Other meals are hot dishes of legumes seasoned with meats, cheeses, and condiments.

The main dish is followed by a tangy salad, then by dates, Turkish sweets, nuts, or succulent fresh fruits. A sharp local wine completes this varied and savory cuisine.

This living pattern, repeated six days a week, is climaxed by a happy Saturday evening. The ritual family dinner is followed by relaxing fellowship in the fields with his peers, when a little ouzo is quaffed. Festivity builds to a passionate midnight dance under the brilliant moon in the field circle where the grain of the region is winnowed.

Our Cretan, in the presence of admiring friends, is a man dignified in bearing, happy in countenance, and graceful in the dance.

On Sunday morn, he strolls to worship with his children and wife. In church he listens to good sense preached by the orthodox priest, a respected leader involved with his own family as well as with his political and religious responsibilities.

Then our truly low-risk male returns home for a quiet Sunday afternoon, chatting with family in the shade, cooled by the salubrious sea breeze that is gently perfumed by smoke from olive-wood charcoal grills and fragrances of herbs and fresh animal dung wafted from nearby fields.

This man of Crete gazes peacefully on a severe but harmonious landscape. He is secure in his niche in a long history from the Minoans and before, a human in the long line of humanity.

He relishes the natural rhythmic cycles and contrasts of his culture: work and rest, solitude and socialization, seriousness and laughter, routine and revelry.

In his elder years, he sits in the slanting bronze light of the Greek sun, enveloped in a rich lavender aura from the Aegean sea and sky.

He is handsome, rugged, kindly — and virile.

His is the lowest heart attack risk, the lowest death rate, and the greatest life expectancy in the Western world.

Finally, though healthy, he is prepared to die.

This, then, is a truer portrait of the man most free of coronary risk of all men on earth.

Click to go onto the next section.