In the mountainous villages on the Italian island of Sardinia, there are 21 centenarians in a population of 10,000. Only about four in 10,000 Americans reach the 100-year mark. In addition, on Sardinia men live longer than any other place on earth. Clearly, the Sardinians could teach the world a thing or two about what it takes to live a long and healthy life.
A decade ago, scientists theorized that genes played a role in their extraordinary longevity. An enclave of 14 villages is home to one of the world’s most genetically homogenous populations. Since then, the notion of a genetic advantage has been called into question. According to Dr. Pes, an Italian physician and medical researcher, several studies have shown that the genetic markers of the centenarians, including those associated with cardiovascular mortality, cancer and inflammation, do not diverge significantly from those of the general population.
A team of researchers at the University of Minnesota recently reverse-engineered a diet of the world’s healthiest populations. They gathered 155 dietary surveys from blue zones – places where people live the longest with the lowest rates of chronic disease – that covered the eating habits of the past century and came up with a global average.
More than 65% of what people in the blue zones ate came from complex carbohydrates. Their diet consists mainly of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and other carbohydrates. They eat meat but only small amounts, about five times a month, usually on celebratory occasions.
The cornerstone of every longevity diet in the world was the humble bean. One five-country study showed that beans were the only food that predicted a longer life - for each 20-gram serving eaten a day, the chance of dying dropped by 8%. Fava beans in Sardinia, black beans in Costa Rica, lentils in Ikaria and soybeans in Okinawa. Dollar for dollar, most beans deliver more protein than beef. More importantly, beans’ high fiber content serves as a gut compost of sorts, enabling healthy bacteria to thrive.
However, even the healthiest diet is not enough by itself to promote long life. The true longevity recipe transcends food to encompass a web of social and cultural factors.
A community of 3,000 people, Silanus is located on the sloping fringes of the Gennargentu Mountains in central Sardinia, where parched pastures erupt into granite peaks. In a cluster of villages in the heart of this blue zone, 91 of the 17,865 people born between 1880 and 1900 have lived to their 100th birthday, a rate more than twice as high as the average for Italy.
The secret to the extraordinary longevity here is the lifestyle. Take, for example, the Tola family. By 11:00am on any particular day, Tonino Tola, a 75-year-old resident of the town, has already milked four cows, split half a cord of wood, slaughtered a calf and walked four miles of pasture with his sheep. After taking the day’s first break, he gathers his grown children, grandson and visitors around the kitchen table. Giovanna, his wife, unties a handkerchief containing a paper-thin flatbread called carta da musica, fills everyone’s glass with red wine and slices a round of homemade Pecorino cheese. Carta da musica is a flat bread made of high-protein, low-gluten Triticum durum wheat, popular with Sardinian shepherds. It is high in fiber and complex carbohydrates and contains only a fraction of the gluten that white bread does.
Like many wives whose husbands are busy tending sheep, Giovanna shoulders the burdens of managing the house and family finances. Among Mediterranean cultures, Sardinian women have a reputation for taking on the stress of these responsibilities. For the men, less stress may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, which may explain why the ratio of female to male centenarians is nearly one to one in some parts of Sardinia, compared with a four to one ratio favoring women in the United States. “I do the work,” admits Tonino, “my ragazza does the worrying.”
Tonino’s family’s diet is another factor. It is loaded with homegrown fruits and vegetables such as zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes and fava beans, which may reduce the risk of heart disease and colon cancer. Also on the table are dairy products such as milk from grass-fed sheep and Pecorino cheese, which, like fish, contribute protein and Omega-3 fatty acids. Tonino still makes wine from his small vineyard of Cannonau grapes, which in this mountainous part of Sardinia contain two to three times as much of a component found in other wines that may prevent cardiovascular disease.
With globalization and modernization, even remote Sardinia is changing. Cars and trucks have eliminated the need to walk long distances. Yet one thing that has not changed is the Sardinians’ dedication to family, which assures both support in times of crisis and life-extending care for the elderly. “I would never put my father in a retirement home,” says Tonino’s daughter Irene. “It would dishonor the family.”
When asked if he ever gets bored of the simple Sardinian lifestyle, Tonino securely answered, “I’ve loved living here every day of my life.”