Traveling and adventures are healthy opportunities to learn and experience new things – contributing factors in living long and living well. So imagine an exploration traveling the world to discover the secrets of those who live the longest, healthiest and happiest lives. Researchers and scientists from National Geographic and the National Institute on Aging embarked on such a trip with journalist Dan Buettner, author of Blue Zones, where they found people who don’t just live long, they thrive!
First stop is Sardinia, Italy — home to the largest number of male centenarians in the world. While women centenarians outnumber men four to one in most developed parts of the world, the ratio in some parts here is one to one. But it’s not just about living long, these Italian men also retained their vigor and vitality longer than men almost anywhere else.
Sardinia is an island located 120 miles west of mainland Italy and has a population of 1.6 million people. While it consists of many small villages, the highest concentration of centenarians is among the hilly central area, where people are a bit more isolated – which actually may be one of the contributing factors to their longevity in that there is less pressure to adapt. Their lifestyle has not changed much over the centuries and thus enables them to maintain their traditional social values: respect for elders as a source of experience, and the importance of the family clan.
It appears diet also plays an important role, as does environment and lifestyle (which is proving to be more important than genetics as many research studies show) in explaining the longevity of Sardinians. The mountainous terrain and rough pastureland serves both as a food source (they eat out of their garden, make their own cheese, and only have meat on Sunday) and work place where people eke out a living from the rugged land by raising sheep and goat. It’s also easy to see why residents here are physically fit — one trip to a friend’s house or the local market is a workout equal to, or more rigorous than a half hour on a Stair Master.
Needless to say, desk jobs are non-existent in these parts of Sardinia. Men centenarians worked steadily their whole life – generally first as a farmer, and then as a shepherd, usually consisting of 16-hour days tilling the earth or following sheep into pasture. Lunch was had at home, followed by a nap and then an hour or two in the late afternoon with friends in the village square before heading back to the fields until dark. Sardinian men rarely raised the children – those and all the other affairs, including maintaining the household finances were typically left to the women. “Men work and women worry” is a common theme here, and as a result, likely explains why women bear more of the stress than the men – another contributing factor to the higher percentage of male centenarians.
Red wine also plays a role – but not in quantity, as much as quality. Apparently, by enduring the harsh Sardinian sun, the grapes of this region produce more red pigment to protect from the ultraviolet rays, resulting in a red wine with 2-3 times the level of artery-scrubbing flavonoids than other wines.
Goat’s milk may be another Sardinia longevity elixir due to the proteins and fatty acids found in it that may help protect people from some of the typical diseases of aging.
Sardinian men also believe strongly in the importance of having purpose in their life – be it the fields and animals they tend to or the family they revere, without these priorities they say they would be sitting in the house doing nothing. They have a very strong work ethic and believe in the benefits of being active and productive well into their 80s and 90s, continuing to contribute and taking care of their family. “La famiglia” is the most important thing in their lives – their primary purpose in life. Many live in mult-generational settings and often share many meals, if not every meal together. Yet in America, too often, seniors live apart from their children and grandchildren, usually in an effort not to be a “burden.” However, being embraced by family, feeling loved and having a sense of belonging can provide significant health advantages – also likely contributing to the longevity here. In fact, 95 percent of Sardinian centenarians have a daughter and/or granddaughter to care for them if and when needed – and they also serve as the role models of the family.
Overall, it’s likely that the male Sardinian centenarian secret is ultimately tied to stress – or the lack thereof. They seem to carry their burdens differently, while maintaining a temperament that is generally quiet, kind, and sensitive to the natural flow of life. They also know how to shed stress when/if they have it and their work is not only something they enjoy, but it involves physical activity, which certainly helps relieve the effects of stress too.
While modernization, mechanization and technology are replacing the longevity factors that have contributed to Sardinia being one of the longest lived places in the world, the traits that hopefully will never be replaced is the unique outlook and perspective of its people – their sense of humor, fantastic zeal for family, strong self-esteem and clear sense of purpose.
In Sardinia, aging is revered – the older you are, the more you are celebrated. People are proud of their age, and others are proud of them, too. There’s even a Sardinian greeting, “Akea” which means, “May you live to 100!” Sardinian centenarians are actually treated like celebrities — everybody in town knows them and on tavern walls, instead of posters of bikinied women or fast cars, you’ll see calendars featuring the “Centenarian of the Month.”