There is a surprising number of 100-year-olds in Sardinia, and the concept of active aging comes from studies looking into this phenomenon. So what are the health secrets for reaching a century?
The parts of the world where people can live happy for longer amounts of time are called Blue Zones, and there are very few of them: the Greek island Icaria and Japan’s Okinawa, the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica and the Seventh-day Adventist community in Loma Linda, California. In Italy there is Sardinia. The beautiful island has magical corners – like Ogliastra in the province of Nuoro – where locals often reach the 100-year milestone. Indeed, the village of Seulo, in the Barbagia area, had an impressive 20 centenarians between 1996 and 2016, confirming the town as the one with the oldest residents in the world! Is it the sea and mountain air, the favorable combination of climate and traditional social structure, or simply the Mediterranean diet? Let’s find out together.
The invasion of the ultra-centenarians
Antonio Todde, known as Tziu Antoni (Uncle Tony), was officially recognized by the Guinness World Records in 2001 as the oldest man in the world. He died at the age of 112 years and 346 days. Born in Sardinia’s Nuoro province, in Tiana to be precise, the shepherd revealed his secret to the BBC: live stress-free, one day at a time, love your neighbor, and have a glass of red wine every day. Another example is Giovanni Frau, born in 1890 in Orroli, in the province of Cagliari, who lived to blow out the 112th candle on his birthday cake.
One of the guests at these men’s most recent birthday parties was Dr. Luca Deiana, Professor of Clinical Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Sassari, who’s one of the greatest scholars of the mystery of Sardinian centenarians. He founded the Akea project, an abbreviation for the Sardinian saying ‘A Kent’Annos’ (literally, up to 100), which has collected data and interviews in the area since 2000. Thus far, more than 4,000 Sardinian ultra-centenarians have been surveyed. “We have reliable evidence on our island that centenarians have always existed. And they are a constant. Thanks to the research we have carried out in recent years, also with the Akea project, we can confidently say that there is a Sardinian centenarian figure,” the professor told the newspaper La Nuova Sassari. Dr. Deiana has also registered the trademark Isola dei Centenari (Island of Centenarians).
The secrets of Sardinian grandfathers
The discovery of the long sought-after elixir of life could have origins directly in Sardinia, where certain DNA is essential, but more than that is necessary. It should be accompanied by other important factors (food, environment and behaviour) which can surely be an example to help everyone live longer and healthier. In fact, at an anthropological level, other factors come into play: the value of social roles, with the family in the foreground; a sense of community, especially prevalent in small villages inland, living in the shadows of bell towers; and an awareness of the meaning of life. And let’s not forget daily physical activity which makes use of the locomotor system and lets you burn the calories consumed. Even playful activity, like traditional dances, is considered exercise. Then there’s the open secret: the fundamental role of food. Roberto Pili, the President of the World Community of Longevity, sheds further light on the concept of active aging precisely in Sardinia by emphasizing the Mediterranean diet in Sardinia as a strength. “A healthy diet that respects nutritional and metabolic needs is one of the pillars on which the privilege of healthily exceeding a century of life is built,” said Pili, who believes the right path includes moderation in food and conscious nutrition. The Sardinian environmental cradle is a winner: the local diet’s biodiversity allows the metabolism to get in sync with food coming from the same land.
The centenarians’ diet
Eating habits in Sardinia are rooted in tradition and are based predominantly on vegetable-based food consumption (fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts) and a small percentage of animal-based foods (necessary for the essential amino acids). All of it is seasoned with olive oil rich in antioxidants. And then there’s the wine, which is incredibly healthy when consumed moderately with meals, especially red wine like the typical Cannonau. As for quantity, we should note that the tradition in Sardinia is not to eat several courses, as in the rest of Italy, but a single dish that is mostly vegetable-based with a small meat component. This offers a balanced intake of macro and micro-nutrients, without any excesses. It’s also a smart way to control calorie intake, in contrast to what happens in the world today. To end our discussion on the topic, here’s an example of a typical Sardinian centenarian’s breakfast. From the highlands, it’s based on a strong pastoral component with cow or goat milk (the latter full of omega 3 and 6), Sardinian yogurt, which is called gioddu, and whole wheat bread made with flour from the Sardinian mills. And to sweeten the yogurt, honey rather than refined sugar should be used. That, indeed, is the breakfast of longevity champions.