Why do Sardinians live so long?

Posted on September 4th, 2013

You might recall this time last year I visited the Blue Zone in Ikaria, where people live a ludicrously long time. No? Well, I spent six weeks on the rugged Greek island with National Geographic, looking at various factors contributing to their abnormal longevity.

Sardinian mural... of men...

Sardinian mural…of men.

To refresh, I found that pork, wine, walking and eating no sugar all play a role. Now, to complete a bit of a circle, I’ve just left Italian island Sardinia, another of the five Blue Zones (the others are Okinawa in Japan, Nicoya in Costa Rica and Loma Linda in CA) and I’m trying to form a picture of what might be contributing to this freaky phenomenon.

Cop this: on an island of about 1.6 million people, 371 (as of last year) are over the age of 100. It’s accepted as a “thing” that islanders have an expression: A Chent’Annos (“May you live to 100”). I should highlight, though, that the phenomenon here applies in particular to men. Yes! Weirder, still!

Having spoken to a bunch of people in the past three weeks of travelling across the island, including through the isolated and largely unvisited interior where most of the centenarians live, I’ve ascertained a few factors. Pretty much all of them are things I bang on about here on this blog as general wellness advice.

Hills.

Sardinia is rugged and mountainous, as is Ikaria. This has meant to get anywhere the locals – mostly shepherds who had to wander after their stock all day – had to hike. Not just walk, but hike, which adds an extra dimension of robustness to things. I posted my thoughts on hiking and healing yesterday.

The wind.

One Sardinian academic believes the wind adds a certain element to the air here. They also attribute the long-living tendencies to the magnetic fields on the island. Everywhere I went folk mentioned the “energy” of the rocks. I felt it, too, after a while. There’s a calmness to the place, especially up in the mountains.

The isolation.

It’s meant a quirk in the DNA that is linked to longevity (particularly in men) has been maintained over the years.

Pork.

Again, the main source of meat protein here is from pig, more so than other places in Italy. As much as you might think Sardinia is know for its seafood, it’s only a very recent thing that the locals have eaten fish and, um, sardines. Why? People didn’t live close to the sea because it left them vulnerable to attack. All the villages are perched up high on mountains or rocks and pigs and goats were – and still are – farmed. Same with Ikaria. Interesting, hey!?

Porcheddu: pork roasted over lemon myrtle.

Porcheddu: pork roasted over lemon myrtle.

Fat.

Oh, they love their olive oil here. And their pig lard. Lashings of the stuff.

Eating leftovers.

Sardinians were poor for most of their history. And so their diet is incredibly simple and frugal. Their traditional dishes are about using up leftover pasta, bread, meat and cheese. I’m not quite sure how this feeds back into a long life, but I do think extracting every possible nutrient from a food, and being mindful of consumption would have to keep your body primed.

Two meals a day.

Maybe three. But definitely no snacking. It’s a form of fasting…every day.

No sense of time.

It’s a joke on the island that no one ever wears a watch. It’s wonderful to observe up in the mountains. I got lost hiking in a forest one day. I found my way out onto a road and found some oldies sitting and chatting. I asked directions back to my car. It turned out to be 2 kms away. I wanted to hitch a ride, they wanted to walk with me. “Andiamo,” they cried out. I told them I was in a rush. “Bah,” they cried out. We walked…slowly…and talked in two different languages.

A family picnic in the forest.

A family picnic in the forest.

Red wine.

For many centenarians living today, cheese and wine was their staple diet. The interior’s famous Cannonau (a very big hearty and potent red) is said to contain more antioxidants than any other red wine. Most families make their own, containing no preservative. They drink a glass with lunch and dinner.

Stoopin’ in the evenings.

All around the island, from about 7pm, the young converge on the old and sit with them in doorways or take their elders for a stroll. It’s gorgeous to observe. The woman hang together – teens sitting with their grandmothers, chatting or knitting. The men tend to go to the park and sit on a bench and gossip. So much kindness and sense of belonging preserves the soul and the body.

Grandad telling a story...

Grandad telling a story…

There is certainly an untouched element to Sardinia. But this is the sad bit, which I also witnessed in Ikaria – the longevity phenomena seems to have come to an abrupt halt, even reversed. It’s almost like as soon as money came to the island (which it did about 50 years ago) the locals went from famine to feast, taking on the health consequences that come with abundance. This happens in poor countries when fortunes reverse – they reject the old ways with more vigour than perhaps those in countries that didn’t have it so tough. Young Sardinians are incredibly overweight. And Sardinia has one of the highest incidences of celiac disease, I’m guessing from eating so much bread and pasta where the gluten content has shifted due to the more processed wheat strains available today. And exercise…it’s just not done! All of which saddened me a little. On my various hiking excursions, I’d go an entire day without seeing anyone. Routes were overgrown and locals didn’t seem to know anything about some of the trails I’d researched.

The same was happening in Ikaria, but – and this is the happier bit – I noticed there that as the recession hit, families were turning back to the old ways again. I’m hoping the same will happen in Sardinia where they were certainly suffering from a quieter tourism season.

If you want to follow my Sardinia trip in pictures, check out my Instagram hashtag #worldwanders. I’ll post a bit of a guide in a few days.

 

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  • http://sustainablesuburbia.net/non-toxic-printables Kirsten McCulloch

    Fascinating stuff Sarah. It makes me want to go back and read your take on Ikaria. It also makes me want to pack my bags and head o/s (sadly, not so easy to do with three kids in tow!).

    It’s great that there’s an upside to the recession. I get that it is also causing a lot of misery, but I often think a dose of genuine hardtimes would do many of us (yes, me included) some good.

    As for the wine – I was staying in a little town on a small island in Greece a couple of years back (with kids!). There was a little store in the town that was just open haphazardly, mostly in the late afternoon, and my partner went down there one afternoon to get something. Just about everyone in the village knew who we were, because we were there outside the peak season and and were staying in the house of some friends (who live in Oz), whose family were from there. So people kept giving us gifts of food.

    On this occasion a local gave Chris a bottle of home made red wine. Our absent host’s cousin lived in the house behind us and kind of “looked after” us, while we were there. She warned us not to count on the wine being drinkable. And let’s just say, our less accustomed palettes were unable to swallow much of it! We had no such trouble with the large box of baklava one of our friend’s aunts gave us though – talk about a lot of sugar!!

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  • http://sustainablesuburbia.net/non-toxic-printables Kirsten McCulloch

    Ah, now I really want to go back…

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  • http://theflourlessfork.blogspot.com Katie

    I have heard over and over that most Europeans don’t snack. I’ve been trying to implement that into my own diet recently and am loving it! I’m not hungry all the time anymore, and it’s easier for me to eat healthily.

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  • Michelle

    Hey Sarah …. loving your blog . Sarah since quitting sugar now for nearly 5 months now I have and my family have never felt better. My question is and I get asked this quite abit by people …. if we have been eating sugar during our life prior to stopping …. do you think or do you know if our body and organs ever recover ? Someone told me that what is the point of stopping if your can’t reverse the damage , to which I added “well you don’t just go and stuff your body and system up even more” …. any thoughts on this from anyone :) :)

    Thanks Michelle

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    lilapud Reply:

    Hi MIchelle,

    I don’t know about organs recovering. But I do like your response to people when they say you can’t reverse the damage!

    As Bob once said/sang, “what’s lost is lost you can’t regain what went down in the flood”!
    No point in focussing on what’s done – I think we are so lucky to be aware and have blogs like this to read and understand more … live more consciously and therefore get the best out of our lives.
    I think a good way of using the past and looking at our past habits, is to benchmark how bloody good we feel now in comparison to then! Haha! Hope you continue to feel well. :)

    And love reading about how others are doing it too … it feels good! Thanks Sarah.

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  • Sandra

    Yes two things

    Makes me want to travel again

    The modern world has got it so wrong – all this rushing around, having to keep up with techlonogy, pollution, material possessions, keeping up with the Jones, fast food…where and when will it end

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  • Nicky

    I just love your posts concerning this ludicrous longevity phenomenon.
    How beautiful is the young and old ‘stoopin’
    Thanks for sharing Sarah!

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  • http://cobblestonetrail.blogspot.com.au/ cherise vecchio

    This was an amazing post, my heritage is Italian and next year I will embark on a gap year there. I am also a celiac, so it is very interesting to hear Sardinia has one of the highest rates of it.
    I am going to be following a lifestyle journey much like yours and this has inspired me so much.

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  • http://stationary-stationery.blogspot.com.au/ Kelsey

    OH MY GOOD LORD. I want to go here. Live here. Hike here. Eat the bread and cheese and wine here. Thanks for the post :)

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  • Miss Jodi

    My God, Sarah, this post was beautiful……………..I loved it!!! The photos are gorgeous. Warmed my heart today thank you. Think of you and your wanderings from time to time throughout the day and its’ a wonderful thing to know that you are in such a peaceful and culturally rich place. In stark contract to the non magical feel of urban Sydney. It took me somewhere else today, somewhere I would rather be.

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  • Ms Jane

    Go to Okinawa next!! I’m not going to get there in a hurry but it fascinates me.

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  • http://www.livecleanjuiceplus.com Carla

    Lovely post Sarah. I have been itching to get away to the the areas of the med for some time now but when I travel although I appreciate the busy and tourist attracting cities, my favourite places are always the small, country and sea side towns. Your article was the perfect way to cover the Sardinian culture and prove a point of how money doesn’t necessarily equal health and how often lovely cultures are lost to it.

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  • Carmel

    No way!! I’m in Sardinia at the moment! That’s so awesome to read while I’m here. I’ve gotta get hiking! I’m staying in Lotzorai. Did you get to any of the Giants Tombs? I went to one last night & the peace & energy there was overwhelming.

    I met a famed centarians grand daughter last night. She said much the same as you & said how strict her grandfather is in terms of portion control. She said he has never over eaten & eats all food in moderation. She also said that he rarely drinks water, mainly consuming red wine! Senza conservatives.

    I just love this place.

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  • Danielle

    Hi Sarah, this is absolutely fascinating – thank you so much for sharing.

    I am an occupational therapist and this makes sense to me on so many levels. Essential human needs – meaningful roles, a sense of purpose, membership and belonging appear to be met in this place. The western world doesn’t always make this easy to achieve – particularly for our elderly generation. I would be very interested to know if you are aware of incidence of mental illness, diabetes, or heart disease in Sardinia? Thank you for the wise and insightful words that you share.

    Kind regards,
    Danielle

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  • MS

    Sarah – I just wanted to comment on the bit about pork.
    The pork that they eat is quite different than most of the pork that is commercially farmed ( see this article for information about the hogs http://eprints.jiia.it/56/1/285_302_Albarella_Marconi_OAI.pdf ). I couldn’t find a nutritional profile of those pigs, but from a few presentations here in the US, I have learned that free-range pork (especially heritage breeds) have very different levels of healthy fatty acids and a different distribution of fats within the meat.
    I don’t know the exact effect of this, and I wouldn’t pretend to. I just think that it might be better to think of the pork that they are eating as an entirely different animal than the pork that westerners eat from CAFU’s and wanted to suggest an area that might be interesting to explore for your Nat Geo project.

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  • tyson brown

    ha ha type 2 diabetes is caused by diet he wasn’t controlling it he was causing it!

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  • tyson brown

    Anyone who wants to learn about living to a ripe age read healthy at 100 by John Robbins!

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