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Blue Zones Summary #3

Following your final reading of the Blue Zones book, respond to the following questions/prompts in your own words regarding YOUR life and incorporate some of the reading into your answers.

1. How much time do you spend worrying about yourself? How much time do you spend taking care of others? Make a list of your current concerns. How many of these are about yourself only?

2. Are you straightforward? Or do you store problems away, hoping they’ll simply vanish?

3. How many friends do you have that you can count on?

4. Where do you find your daily physical activity? Do you walk? Jog? Run? Have you considered a garden?

5. Do you have a faith, either in God, gods, higher power or ancestors that you can depend on to look over you?

6. How much time do you spend dwelling on the past, rather than celebrating the present?

7. Do you see any correlation between water consumption, mood and health? Explain.

8. How often do you consume nuts?

9. What does your usual diet consist of? What are your favorite foods? What about your favorite guilty pleasures? It’s surprising how many of your “guilty pleasures” can be made healthier for you.

10. Do you set time aside each week to relax and rejuvenate?

11. What are your own eating habits?

12. What is your own plan de vida (plan for living)? What is the plan de vida of the elderly in your family?

13. Are you a vital part of your neighborhood? Do you visit or get frequent visitors?

14. What are your beliefs, spiritual, religious or otherwise? Do you have faith in these beliefs, in your future? Are you secure that you are taken care of and that you will be taken care of in the days to come?

15. What physical chores do you take part in daily? Can you think of additional physical chores to get involved in?

THE Blue Zones
THE Blue Zones
LESSONS FOR LIVING LONGER
FROM THE PEOPLE
WHO’VE LIVED THE LONGEST
DAN BUETTNER
WASHINGTON, D.C.
For Roger and Dolly
Published by the National Geographic Society
Copyright © 2008 Dan Buettner
All rights reserved. Reproduction of the whole or any part of the contents
without written permission from the publisher is prohibited.
ISBN: 978-1-42620341-1
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Buettner, Dan.
The blue zones: lessons for living longer from the people who’ve lived the
longest / by Dan Buettner.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references.
1. Longevity. 2. Medical geography. I. Title.
RA776.75.B84 2008
613.2—dc22
2007044375
Founded in 1888, the National Geographic Society is one of the largest nonprofit
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Subsidiary Rights: ngbookrights@ngs.org
A MESSAGE TO THE READER
This publication contains the opinions and ideas of its author. It is intended to
provide helpful and informative material on the subjects addressd in the
publication. It is sold with the understanding that the authors and publisher are
not engaged in rendering medical, health, or any other kind of personal
professional services in the book. The reader should consult his or her medical,
health, or other competent professional before adopting any of the suggestions in
this book or drawing inferences from it.
The authors and publisher specifically disclaim all responsibility for any liability,
loss, or risk, personal or otherwise, which is incurred as a consequence, directly
or indirectly, of the use and application of any of the contents in this book.
Contents
Acknowledgments
Preface
Get Ready to Change Your Life
Chapter One
The Truth About Living Longer
Chapter Two
The Sardinian Blue Zone
Chapter Three
The Blue Zone in Okinawa
Chapter Four
An American Blue Zone
Chapter Five
Discovering Costa Rica’s Blue Zone
Chapter Six
Your Personal Blue Zone
Bibliography
Illustration Credits
Acknowledgments
WITHOUT THE UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA’S Dr. Robert Kane, who
endorsed and helped shape the Blue Zones premise, this book would have never
materialized. He and his colleagues from the National Institute on Aging, Dr.
Jack Guralnick, Dr. Luigi Ferrucci and Dr. Paul Costas; Dr. Thomas Perls from
the New En gland Centenarian Study; Dr. Greg Plotnikoff, Medical Director of
Allina’s Institute for Health and Healing; University of Lovain’s Dr. Michel
Poulain and University of Illinois, Chicago’s Dr. S. Jay Olshansky would spend
countless hours sharing expertise, identifying locations, developing
methodologies, and ultimately keeping me on the path of science and off the
short cuts of conjecture and hyperbole. I cannot thank them enough.
Of the many experts around the world who contributed to this project, I am
especially indebted to Dr. Craig Willcox, Dr. Bradley Willcox, Dr. Mokoto
Suzuki of the Okinawa Centenarian study; Dr. Tatsama; Dr. Luca Deiana of
Sardinia’s AKEA Study and his incandescently brilliant protégé Dr. Gianni Pes;
Dr. Paolo Francalacci; Drs. Gary Fraser and Terry Butler of the Adventist Health
Study; Dr. Luis Rosero-Bixby of the Central American Population Center; and
Dr. Leonardo Mata. They not only lent their expertise but also extended their
hospitality and generosity of spirit. Dr. Len Hayflick, Dr. Jack Weatherford, and
Dr. Richard Suzman graciously consented to many long interviews. The faculty
at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, including Dr. Robert
Jeffreys, Dr. Tatyana Shamliyan, Dr. Robert W. Jeffery, Dr. John Finnegan, Dr.
Cheryl Perry, and especially Dr. Leslie Lytle have been and still are my academic
partners.
Many of the experiences on which this book is based reflect a shared effort
by the members of Quest Team who have traveled with me to the Blue Zones.
Photographer and long-time expedition partner David McLain deserves much of
the credit in developing the Blue Zones idea. Nick Buettner, Damian Petrou,
Gianluca Colla, Sabriya Rice, Rachel Binns, Sayoko Ogata, Dr. Elizabeth Lopez,
Eliza Thomas, Tom Adair, Michael Mintz, Meshach Weber, Thad Dahlberg, Eric
Luoma, Joseph Van Harken, and Suzanne Pfeifer all shared their ample talents
and endured many long days and nights to bring Blue Zones to life.
This story would have never been told without Peter Miller, my editor at
National Geographic. He backed the idea for the original magazine story and
guided me through my first drafts of the book. Michelle Harris further improved
the book through her thorough fact checking, and Dr. Robert M. Russell’s review
of our chapters helped keep us on track. Also at National Geographic, I thank
Lisa Thomas and Amy Briggs for orchestrating this book; Rebecca Martin for
shepherding us through the Expeditions Council grant process; Valerie May and
Miki Meek for bringing Blue Zones to life online; and picture editor Susan
Welchman for her fiercely relentless friendship and guidance. Assistants Jorge
Vindas (Costa Rica), Marisa Montebella (Sardinia), and Kadowaki Kunio
(Okinawa) were the unseen engines behind our successful stories.
No project of this magnitude happens without sponsors and financial
partners. I wish to especially thank Marty Davis, the Davis family, and
DAVISCO for their commitment to health and vast generosity; Jane Shure from
the National Institute on Aging who was instrumental in obtaining our initial
funding from the National Institutes of Health; Becky Malkerson, John
Helgerson, Laura Juergens, and Maria Lindsley who championed Blue Zones at
Allianz Life; Valerie May and Nancy Graham for navigating the waters at
AARP; Nishino Hiroshi who found most of the funding in Japan; the Target
Foundation, the Best Buy Foundation, Lawson Software, and the National
Geographic Expeditions Council.
At Blue Zones’ Minneapolis headquarters, Scott Meyer has been our mentor
and marketing guru from the very beginning. The office team: Matt Osterman,
Sarah Kast, Phil Noyed, Amy Tomczyk, Nancy Fuller McRae, and Jennifer
Havrish have endlessly helped with research, proofreading, and have patiently
endured my nonlinear methods; and the extended team including PR maven
Laura Reynolds; Remar Sutton, Dr. Mary Abbott Waite, and the late George
Plimpton, who provided crucial editorial assistance; Britt Robson for his help on
the Okinawa and Loma Linda Chapters; our advisors including Tom Rothstein,
Frank Roffers, Elwin Loomis, Jon Norberg, Ed McCall, Tom Gegax, Kevin
Moore, Molly Goodyear, Chris Mahai, John Foley, and John Gabos who lent
generous business advice; Thad Dahlberg, Dan Grigsby, and Bruno Bornstein,
who built the Blue Zones website; and Keiko Takahashi, who created the Blue
Zones identity.
And to the members of the media who have taken a chance and made the
Blue Zones a national story I’d like to thank: Diane Sawyer, Rob Wallace,
Jennifer Joseph, Anderson Cooper, Barbara Walters, Sanjay Gupta, Alyssa
Caplan, Ned Potter, Patty Neger, and especially Walter Cronkite.
And finally to Cheryl Tiegs, my partner in love and life, who has endured
my absences and encouraged me along every step of this journey. For me, she
embodies the principles found in this book and is the very personification of
ageless beauty.
Preface
Get Ready to Change Your Life
THE FIRST TIME I MET SAYOKO OGATA SHE was wearing the sort of
fashionable gear one might expect a young Tokyo executive to take on a safari:
hiking boots and cuffed socks, khaki shorts and shirt, and a pith helmet. Never
mind that we were in Naha, a high-tech city of 313,000 on the main island in
Okinawa, Japan. When I gently poked fun at her by saying that I could see she
was ready for adventure, she didn’t blush. Instead, she responded with one of her
joyous, staccato laughs, wagged a finger at me, and scolded, “I’ll get even with
you, Mr. Dan.” But I never saw the pith helmet again.
At the time, in the spring of 2000, Sayoko was a young, fast-climbing
executive in Tokyo. Her company had brought me to Japan to explore the
mystery of human longevity, a topic that would likely spark the imagination of a
large audience. For more than a decade, I’ve been leading a series of interactive,
educational projects called “Quests,” in which a team of Internet-linked
scientists investigated some of Earth’s great puzzles. Our goal was to engage the
imaginations and brainpower of tens of thousands of students who followed our
daily dispatches on the web. Previous Quests had taken me to Mexico, Russia,
and throughout Africa.
I’d first learned about Okinawa’s role in longevity studies a few years
earlier, when population studies indicated it was among the places on our planet
where people lived the longest, healthiest lives. Somehow Okinawans managed
to reach the age of 100 at a rate up to three times higher than Americans did,
suffered a fifth the rate of heart disease, and lived about seven good years longer.
What were their secrets to good health and long life?
I landed in Okinawa with a small film crew, a photographer, three writers,
and a satellite technician to keep us connected to about a quarter million school
kids. We identified gerontologists, demographers, herbalists, shamans, and
priestesses to contact, as well as centenarians themselves, who were living
emblems of Okinawan longevity.
Each morning our online audience voted to decide whom we should
interview and where the team should focus its research. Each night we reported
back to the audience with a variety of dispatches and short videos.
Sayoko had brought a team of translators with her, a computer filled with
spreadsheets, and an intimidating plan to make sure that our daily reports and
videos were translated into Japanese and transmitted by midnight to Tokyo. We
spent ten hectic days asking questions about life on Okinawa and summing up
what we found. I met lots of fascinating people, which made me happy. Sayoko
made her deadlines, which made her happy. And when the project was over, her
team and mine celebrated with karaoke singing and sake and then parted ways.
That was that.
THE BLUE ZONES QUEST
Five years later, I returned to Okinawa with a new team of experts. I’d just
written a cover story for NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC about the “Secrets of Long
Life,” which profiled three areas of the world with concentrations of some of the
world’s longest-lived people—areas we dubbed “Blue Zones.” Demographers
had coined the term while mapping one of these regions on the island of
Sardinia. We expanded the term to include other longevity pockets around the
world. Okinawa still ranked among those at the top of the list.
I was determined to delve deeper into the lifestyle of Okinawans as part of a
new online expedition—the Blue Zones Quest. More than a million people a day
would follow our progress online. It was a huge opportunity to make a
difference, and I knew we couldn’t miss any deadlines. I decided to track down
Sayoko.
She wasn’t easy to find. I tried her old e-mail address and queried all of my
old teammates concerning her whereabouts. I contacted her former boss, who
told me she’d left her high-powered job behind to become a full-time mom. This
news blew me away. By now I expected her to be a senior executive at Sony or
Hitachi. Instead, she’d left Tokyo, he said, and moved to the island of Yaku
Shima, where she lived with her husband, a schoolteacher, and their two
children. When I phoned her, she was ebullient.
“Mr. Dan!” she said. “It makes me happy, really, to hear your voice.” I told
her about my new project in Okinawa and said I hoped she could join us.
“Dan,” she replied, “you know I loved Quest, and for me it was really
something quite powerful in my life. But now I have two small children, and I
cannot leave them.”
We talked for a few more minutes and then I hung up, disappointed. I’d have
to find someone else. But a few days later, she called me back and abruptly
accepted the offer. I had no idea why. I was just relieved to have her back on the
team.
We set up our Blue Zones headquarters in a traditional guesthouse on the
remote northern half of Okinawa. I’d recruited a team of scientists, writers,
video producers, and photographers, and Sayoko had arrived with a team of
Japanese translators and technicians. Gone was Sayoko’s fashionable expedition
wear. Now she wore sandals and earth-toned cottons. A few strands of gray
streaked her hair, and she exuded calm. But when she opened her computer to a
spreadsheet, I could see she’d lost none of her organizational zeal.
“Okay, Mr. Dan, let’s talk about our deadlines.”
For the next two weeks, we rarely saw each other face-to-face. During the
day, my team gathered information and produced stories. Each night Sayoko’s
team translated them and published them to the Web. Since I was waking up
about the time she was going to bed, we saw each other only at dinnertime, when
both of our teams—20 of us—ate together. Our midnight deadline dominated all
the dinner conversation. Sayoko and I never really got around to catching up on
our personal lives.
LIFE CHANGES
Midway through the project, our online audience voted for my team to travel to
Ogimi, a tiny fishing village, to interview a 104-year-old woman named Ushi
Okushima. Sayoko and I had visited with her before when I had profiled her in
my NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC article. She’d impressed us with her amazing vigor,
saying she grew most of her food and hosted drinking parties for her friends.
Since turning 100, she’d somehow become a media darling. It seemed like every
major news organization in the world, including CNN, the Discovery Channel,
and the BBC had come to see her.
When Sayoko heard about our plans to visit Ushi again, she asked to come
along. On the hour-long car ride to Ogimi, we had our first opportunity to really
talk. We were sitting in the back seat as the vivid foliage of northern Okinawa
zipped by.
“You know Dan, Ushi really changed my life,” she began. “I’d been working
in the center of Tokyo. I’d go from 7:30 in the morning until late at night, five to
seven meetings a day, then dinner and karaoke until one or two in the morning. It
was hard work, and I loved it. I did a good job. I made lots of money. But my
life lacked something. I felt empty right here.” She brought her hand to her
chest.
“Dan, you remember,” she recalled, “when we met Ushi I first saw her big
smile. You were a man from another country, but she talked to you like a friend.
In Japan, we’re usually wary of strangers. Ushi immediately welcomed you. The
atmosphere was like a big hug. You could tell that she made everyone happy
around her—her family, her friends, and now even strangers. And even though
she never even talked to me, I felt a big energy from her.”
After our first meeting with Ushi, Sayoko said, she had gone into the street
to drink some juice. “I was thinking, ‘This is something for me.’ For the rest of
our trip in Okinawa, I thought of Ushi—the simplicity of her life, how she made
people around her feel good, how she was not worried about getting something
in the future or sad that she had missed something in the past. Gradually I was
starting to think, ‘I want to be like her. That is my goal.’
“When I returned to Tokyo, I told my boss that I was quitting. My dream had
always been related to business. But I realized that I was like a horse chasing a
carrot. I realized that I wanted to be like Ushi. I thought, ‘How can I organize
this?’ I called my boyfriend in Yaku Shima and told him I wanted to visit. I
moved to Yaku Shima and learned to cook. A year later, we were married.
“When my first child was on the way, my husband and I came back to
Okinawa to meet Ushi again. I wanted her to bless my child. I don’t think she
remembered me. But my baby was born healthy. Now I have two children, and
they are my life. No one knows about my career in Tokyo.”
By this point, we’d almost reached Ogimi on a road that ran parallel to the
sea. “What have you done to be like Ushi?” I asked.
“I’ve learned to make my own meals for the family,” Sayoko said. “I put
love into my food. I care for my husband and my children, the husband comes
home, and I have a good family. Also, I try to mentally check to make sure that I
haven’t hurt anyone, that the people around me are okay. I take time each night
to think about the people around me, and think about what I eat, and what is
important to me. I also do this during dinner. I take time to reflect. I’m not
chasing the carrot any more.”
RETURN TO USHI
By the time we arrived at Ushi’s house, it was mid-afternoon. She lived in a
traditional Okinawan wooden house with a few rooms separated by sliding rice
paper doors and tatami mats on the floor. We removed our shoes and stepped
inside. Though it is customary to sit on the floor, Ushi sat queen-like and serene
on a chair in the middle of the room. When I first met her, she’d been
anonymous. Now she had become a celebrity—a sort of “Dalai Lama” of
longevity. Wrapped in a blue kimono, she motioned for us to sit down. So like
kindergartners around a teacher, we sat cross-legged at her feet. I noticed that
Sayoko, however, barely entered the room. For some reason, she seemed
reluctant to get too close to Ushi.
By way of greeting, Ushi raised her arms above her head as if to show off
her biceps and shouted, “Genki, genki, genki,” or “Vigor, vigor, vigor!”
“What a treasure,” I thought. So many people fear getting older. But if they
could see this vibrant woman, they’d look forward to it. I showed Ushi the
photograph of her in NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC. I was beaming with pride that the
story I’d written had made the cover. She looked at it blankly, put it down, and
offered me a piece of candy.
I interviewed Ushi again, asking about her garden, her friends, and how
things had changed in the five years since we’d last visited with her. She’d cut
back on gardening some, she said, but had taken a job bagging fruit at a nearby
market. She still spent much of her day with her grandchildren and the three
surviving women in her circle of friends she’d had since childhood. She still ate
a dinner of mostly vegetables and drank a cup of mugwort sake before bed. That
was her secret, she told me. “Work hard, drink mugwort sake before bed, and get
a good night’s sleep.”
As I spoke with Ushi, I caught Sayoko’s eye. She was sitting off to the side,
watching my interview. “Sayoko,” I said, conscious of the fact that I was raising
my voice inappropriately, but also figuring that Sayoko was too polite to
approach Ushi without being beckoned. “Don’t you want to tell Ushi your
story?”
Sayoko hesitated but then came forward and knelt in front of Ushi. “Five
years ago I came here, and you changed my life,” she said. “Because of you, I
decided to quit my job and get married. I owe you a big debt of thanks.”
Sayoko’s eyes welled up with tears as she spoke. Ushi looked bewildered. She
didn’t remember their meeting.
“Then I came back a few years later,” Sayoko continued. “You touched my
belly when I was pregnant.” This recollection now sparked recognition. Ushi
smiled and then grabbed Sayoko’s hands. Her thumb caressed Sayoko’s thumb.
“You inspired me, and now I am very happy,” the younger woman said. “I had to
come to thank you.” Speechless, but understanding, Ushi patted Sayoko’s hand.
“I share my blessings with you,” she said.
On the street outside Ushi’s house, I caught up with Sayoko, who looked
dazed but serene. I asked her what she was thinking. She smiled. “I feel like
something is a little bit closed,” she said in her own poetic Japanese-tinged
English. “I feel complete.”
CENTENARIAN WISDOM
This book is about listening to people like Ushi who live in the world’s Blue
Zones. The world’s healthiest, longest-lived people have many things to teach us
about living longer, richer lives. If wisdom is the sum of knowledge plus
experience, then these individuals possess more wisdom than anyone else.
So we’ve packed this book with insights from centenarians about living life
well. Their stories cover everything from child rearing to learning how to be
likable, from getting rich to finding—and keeping—love in your life. From
them, we can all learn how to create our own personal Blue Zones and start on
the path to living longer, better lives.
When it comes to the science of living longer, however, centenarians can no
more tell us how they reached age 100 than a seven-foot man can tell us how he
got to be so tall. They don’t know. Does Ushi’s nightly cup of sake infused with
mugwort provide some healthful benefits? Perhaps, but it doesn’t begin to
explain why she doesn’t have cancer or heart problems or why she possesses
such vigor at age 104. The way to learn longevity secrets from people like Ushi
is to find a place where there are many Ushis—to find a culture, a Blue Zone,
where the proportion of healthy 90 or 100-year-olds to the overall population is
unusually high. Then science can kick in.
Scientific studies suggest that only about 25 percent of how long we live is
dictated by genes, according to famous studies of Danish twins. The other 75
percent is determined by our lifestyles and the everyday choices we make. It
follows that if we optimize our lifestyles, we can maximize our life expectancies
within our biological limits.
When we first set out to investigate the mysteries of human longevity, we
teamed up with demographers and scientists at the National Institute on Aging to
identify pockets around the world where people live the longest, healthiest lives.
These are the places where people reach age 100 at rates significantly higher,
and on average, live longer, healthier lives than Americans do. They also suffer a
fraction of the rate of killer diseases that Americans do. We worked with some of
the world’s top longevity experts to distill lifestyles into the characteristics that
could help explain their extraordinary longevity.
LONGEVITY LESSONS
This book begins by tackling the realities of aging. What are the chances that
you will actually reach 100? What promises do supplements, hormone therapies,
or genetic intervention offer? What are some of the scientifically proven ways
for you to increase your years of healthy life?
In the following chapters, we’ll take you to the world’s confirmed longevity
hotspots, the Blue Zones themselves: the Barbagia region of Sardinia in Italy,
Okinawa in Japan, the community of Loma Linda in California, and the Nicoya
Peninsula in Costa Rica. In each of these places we’ll encounter a different
culture that has taken its own unique path to longevity. We’ll meet longevity allstars like Ushi and the experts who study their lifestyles and cultures. We’ll
show how history, genes, and time-honored traditions conspire to favor each
population. We’ll tease out the lifestyle components and let science explain why
they seem be adding good years to people’s lives.
The final chapter boils it all down into nine lessons, a cross-cultural
distillation of the world’s best practices in longevity. This, we believe, amounts
to a de facto formula for longevity—the best, most credible information
available for adding years to your life and life to your years.
Of course this information will do you no good unless you put it into
practice. So, leading behavior experts will also offer an action plan to put these
longevity secrets to work in your own life. And here’s the good news: You don’t
have to do it all. We present an à la carte menu of sorts. You can pick and choose
the most appealing items, follow our advice for converting items from the
longevity menu into everyday habits, and know that whatever you choose,
chances are you’ll be adding months or years to your life.
Encoded in the world’s Blue Zones are centuries—even millennia—of
human experiences. I believe that it’s no coincidence that the way these people
eat, interact with each other, shed stress, heal themselves, avoid disease, and
view their world yields them more good years of life. Their cultures have
evolved this wisdom over time. Just as nature selects for characteristics that
favor the survival of a species, I believe that these cultures have passed on
positive habits over time in a way that most favors the longevity of their
members. To learn from them, we need only be open and ready to listen.
Sayoko was ready to listen. Her brief time with Ushi led to a transition,
helping her change from being a chronically stressed, marginally healthy
professional to becoming a more serene, physically fit person living a life that
matches her values.
Maybe you’re ready to listen too. Who knows? It may change your life just
as profoundly.
1
The Truth About Living Longer
The Truth About Living Longer
You May Be Missing Out on Ten Good Years
WHEN JUAN PONCE DE LEÓN LANDED ON the northeast coast of
Florida on April 2, 1513, he was searching, it’s been said, for a Fountain of
Youth—a fabled spring of water that could bestow everlasting life. Historians
now know there was more to the story. The reason the Spanish explorer set out
to investigate lands north of the Bahamas was probably because Spain had
reinstated Christopher Columbus’s son Diego as military governor, effectively
removing Ponce de León from the office. Nevertheless, the legend behind Ponce
de León’s voyage stuck.
The idea of discovering a magic source of long life still has so much appeal
today, five centuries later, that charlatans and fools perpetuate the same
boneheaded quest, whether it comes disguised as a pill, diet, or medical
procedure. In an all-out effort to squash the charlatans forever, demographer S.
Jay Olshansky of the University of Illinois at Chicago and more than 50 of the
world’s top longevity experts issued a position statement in 2002 that was as
blunt as they could fashion it.
“Our language on this matter must be unambiguous,” they wrote. “There are
no lifestyle changes, surgical procedures, vitamins, antioxidants, hormones, or
techniques of genetic engineering available today that have been demonstrated to
influence the processes of aging.”
The brutal reality about aging is that it has only an accelerator pedal. We
have yet to discover whether a brake exists for people. The name of the game is
to keep from pushing the accelerator pedal so hard that we speed up the aging
process. The average American, however, by living a fast and furious lifestyle,
pushes that accelerator too hard and too much.
This book is about discovering the world’s best practices in health and
longevity and putting them to work in our lives. Most of us have more control
over how long we live than we think. In fact, experts say that if we adopted the
right lifestyle, we could add at least ten good years and suffer a fraction of the
diseases that kill us prematurely. This could mean an extra quality decade of life!
To identify the secrets of longevity, our team of demographers, medical
scientists, and journalists went straight to the best sources. We traveled to the
Blue Zones—four of the healthiest corners of the globe—where a remarkably
high rate of the longest-living people manage to avoid many of the diseases that
kill Americans. These are the places where people enjoy up to a 3 times better
chance of reaching 100 than we do.
In each of the Blue Zones, we used a survey developed in collaboration with
the National Institute on Aging to identify the lifestyle components that help
explain the area’s longevity—what the inhabitants choose to eat, how much
physical activity they get, how they socialize, what traditional medicines they
use, and so forth. We looked for the common denominators—the practices found
in all four populations—and came up with what I consider to be a cross-cultural
distillation of the best practices of health, a de facto formula for longevity.
Herein lies the premise of The Blue Zones: If you can optimize your
lifestyle, you may gain back an extra decade of good life you’d otherwise miss.
What’s the best way to optimize your lifestyle? Emulate the practices we found
in each one of the Blue Zones.
LONGEVITY PIONEER
In 1550, Italian Luigi Cornaro wrote one of the first longevity “best sellers.” His
book, The Art of Living Long, said that life could be extend through practicing
moderation. His book would be translated into French, English, Dutch, and
German. Cornaro may have been on to something; sources differ on his exact
age, he lived well into his 90s and possibly beyond.
FACTS ABOUT AGING
When taken together, the Blue Zones yielded nine powerful lessons to achieve a
longer, better life. But before we get into the details, I think it’s crucial to
understand a few things about just how people age and establish some basic
principles and definitions. How long can each of us expect to live? What really
happens to our bodies when we age? Why can’t we just take a pill to extend our
lives? How can we live longer? How can we live better? And why does changing
our lifestyles add more good years?
To answer these and other fundamental questions, I’ve asked some of the
world’s experts to describe their latest research in everyday terms. Together
these scientists represent the best thinking in biology, geriatrics, and the science
of longevity.
Steven N. Austad, Ph.D., studies the cellular and molecular mechanisms of
aging at the University of Texas Health Center at San Antonio. A professor at the
Sam and Ann Barshop Center for Longevity and Aging, he is the author of Why
We Age: What Science is Discovering About the Body’s Journey Through Life.
Robert N. Butler, M.D., is President and CEO of the International Longevity
Center-U.S.A., a policy and education research center in New York City. A
professor of geriatrics and adult development at Mount Sinai Medical Center, he
is the author of Why Survive: Being Old in America.
Jack M. Guralnik, M.D., Ph.D., is chief of the laboratory of epidemiology,
demography, and biometery at the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda,
Maryland.
Robert Kane, M.D., is director of the Center on Aging and the Minnesota
Geriatric Education Center at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He is
a professor in the School of Public Health, where he holds an endowed chair in
Long-term Care and Aging.
Thomas T. Perls, M.D., M.P.H., is director of the New England Centenarian
Study, an associate professor of medicine and geriatrics at the Boston University
School of Medicine, and author of Living to 100: Lessons in Living to Your
Maximum Potential at Any Age.
I interviewed each of these experts separately, then sorted the best of their
answers to each question. Here’s what they told me.
WHAT EXACTLY IS AGING?
Robert Kane: That is a very profound question. Number one, aging starts at
birth. If you think about it, there is a constant development that occurs within all
species. You can think of it as the balance between the individual and the
environment. In essence, we can think of aging as a loss of coping mechanism, a
failure to be able to maintain internal control and balance.
We start out as children, and we gradually accrue various changes in our
characteristics. Children are susceptible to the environment and must be
protected. In the case of humans, we probably peak in our mid-20s. We hold our
own for a while, then at some point, perhaps in our mid-40s, we start to decline.
Some people would say we actually begin to decline at age 30. It depends on the
system that you track.
The skin is often where we first notice the outward signs of the aging process.
Old age is another period when the balance favors the environment; older
people need help in protecting themselves. The frailty we associate with old age
is basically the loss of autonomy, the inability to withstand external pressures
and perturbations.
Aging includes both the positive and negative changes that occur. A
gerontologist would define aging as the risk of dying. Irrespective of the
presence of disease, there is, given this finiteness of a life span, a continuous risk
of dying. In most cases this increases as our age increases. Other factors can
change your risk of dying as well as aging, so it’s not that aging alone is the
determiner, but it is the overarching change. People have been searching for
biological markers of aging, and so far nobody has found any that are absolutely
constant and separate from the onset of diseases.
People look at, for example, the loss of accommodation in the lens of the
eye. Most people become farsighted, usually in their early 40s. It doesn’t happen
to everyone, so you can’t say it’s a universal sign of aging. Graying of hair, loss
of collagen in the skin, all of these are changes that have been described with
regard to aging. There’s a change in body composition as people get older. It can
obviously be influenced by exercise and diet, but in general, we lose muscle
mass and gain body fat. The immune system changes with age and becomes less
competent, but again, not in any universal way that we can say is a characteristic
of aging.
Steven Austad: I would define aging as the gradual loss of physical capabilities,
whether you’re talking about the ability to run, to think, all those things. It’s a
gradual and progressive loss of physical and mental abilities, the ability to do
things that you previously could do. What it means is that basically, you’re not
designed to maintain your physical integrity forever.
Robert Kane: There are several theories about aging. One is that there are genes
in your system that turn on and turn off, either to ameliorate or to expedite aging.
Another theory is the “Garbage-Dump Syndrome,” which theorizes that you
accumulate toxins as you go along and things happen.
But again, the question you have to ask is why does the body accumulate
toxins? Well, you probably accumulate toxins because some of the intracellular
mechanisms that were working at one point have stopped working. So are the
toxins really a sign of aging or merely a concomitant of some other biological
process that has changed, presumably driven by some genetic clock that exists
inside the body? We honestly just don’t know.
PEARLY WHITES
A vital part of your digestive system, a bright smile can last a lifetime. Healthy
teeth allow us to eat the wide variety of foods found in a balanced diet, but
cavities, ill-fitting dentures, and other oral problems can make chewing painful
and may sometimes even lead to eating disorders. Be sure to make regular dental
visits and brushing and flossing a priority to keep your smile healthy.
WHAT IS THE AVERAGE AMERICAN LIFESPAN?
Robert Kane: I would imagine that a 30-year-old person today has a reasonable
chance of living—depending on whether a man or a woman—to his or her late
70s or early 80s. If you took away major risk factors such as heart disease,
cancer, and stroke, you would be adding, I would guess, maybe 5 to 10 years to
that initial life expectancy.
Tom Perls: For most of us, our bodies are like cars built to go 100,000 miles. A
few cars can go 150,000 or more miles with the right genetic makeup. But they
do deteriorate over time, even with the best upkeep. With that deterioration
comes frailty. When you hit a bump in the road, you are less capable of bouncing
back. There comes a point, with continued decline, where there’s no bounce
back, and that’s when you pass away.
WHAT ARE THE CHANCES OF LIVING TO?
Jack Guralnik: Well, they are small of course, probably less than one percent.
Again, figuring it out depends on what age you currently are. If you’re talking
about someone at birth, it’s a different estimation than for someone who’s
already made it to 80. Also, if you want to consider health status, that plays a
large role. Most people who make it to be centenarians when you look back, they
were quite healthy at 80.
Tom Perls: I used to equate living to 100 to picking all five numbers in the
lottery: The odds are pretty small. If you have longevity running in your family
paired with good health behaviors, your chances are greater.
Centenarians today are the fastest growing segment of our population, partly
because we’re doing a better job of screening for high blood pressure. That’s one
important lottery ball that we don’t need to leave to chance. Now instead of five
numbers, it’s down to four.
Another one that we’ve pretty much gotten rid of is substantial childhood
mortality. With much better public health measures like cleaner water supplies,
more years of education, improved social-economic status, these things are all
reducing the number of lottery balls.
The best way to think about reaching 100 is: “The older you get, the
healthier you’ve been.”
Ponce de León’s legendary search for the Fountain of Youth is one of the many
tales that illustrate the desire to overcome aging.
Steven Austad: The question is—and here’s where I think the best health
practices are really important—if you live to be 100 years old, what sort of 100year-old are you going to be? Are you going to be bedridden and unable to take
care of yourself? Or are you going to be reasonably independent and alert? To
me, that’s what the best health practices can really have an impact on.
IS THERE A PILL THAT CAN EXTEND LIFE?
Robert Kane: There are a lot of nostrums out there. None of them has
credibility. None of them has been even close to rigorously tested, everything
from to human growth hormone to antioxidants. Every time anyone has studied
them with any degree of rigor, they do not pan out. That does not mean that
some new discovery may not be just over the horizon, but at the moment that is
probably not the path.
LEADING KILLERS
Heart Disease: For both U.S. men and women, the leading cause
of death
Cancer: The second largest killer of American men and women
Prevention: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
advocates practicing a healthy lifestyle and regular medical
check-ups and screenings
Just think about it: If antioxidants were so healthful, the whole generation
that grew up eating Twinkies, Wonder Bread, and the like (the kinds of foods
that are loaded with antioxidants to assure that they had a long shelf life and
would never spoil) should never grow old.
Robert Butler: DHEA, human growth hormone, and melatonin are all
extremely questionable, and are probably ill-advised. Using human growth
hormone in human beings bulks them up. But it does not just mean more muscle
mass. With it can come hypertrophy of the heart, fluid retention, and other
problems. And of course there’s a disease, acromegaly, which is actually
characterized by an excess of human growth hormone. DHEA is what’s for years
been called the “junk hormone.” In large quantities in our bodies, it converts to
both testosterone and estrogen. Most of the studies on almost all of these
hormones have been very short-lived, that is six months to a year. So the longterm effects are not well known.
The best source of information on hormones is Marc Blackman at the
Washington, D.C., Veterans Affairs Medical Center, or Mitchell Harman at the
Kronos Longevity Research Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. They’ve done the
most sophisticated studies and probably the best ones we presently have on the
hormone story.
ARE VITAMIN SUPPLEMENTS HELPFUL?
Robert Butler: Of course you should maintain your basic daily vitamin
requirements. But you shouldn’t get carried away either. Vitamin E was under
study by the National Institute on Aging in the hopes that it would prove to be
very valuable with Alzheimer’s disease. But it was not.
So I think, like so many things in nature, it’s a matter of amount, what might
be called proportionality, or just plain wisdom. People used to think if a
multivitamin was good for them, then more of it would be even better, but that’s
just not true, unfortunately.
Most vitamin requirements are best achieved by eating six to nine servings
of fruits and vegetables a day. Very few people do that, so probably the cheapest,
least expensive multivitamin you can buy is not a bad idea to help achieve them.
If you’re an older man, you should not have a supplement with iron because iron
accumulates in the heart and can lead to a condition called hemosiderosis. Look
on the market for vitamin supplements that do not have iron that are designed
specifically for men.
WHAT’S A SMART DIET FOR LONGEVITY?
Robert Kane: Eating a reasonable diet makes a lot of sense. Again, it doesn’t
mean that I think you have to be a vegetarian. One of the goals to a healthy
lifestyle is moderation in all things. What one is looking for is moderation,
taking in a level of calories that is necessary and balancing those calories across
carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Taking in really what you need. There are
some things we know that are just generally bad. Most fast foods are not
necessarily healthy. We seem to like a lot of the things that are bad for us: salt,
sugar, fat. There is something about humans that is inherently self-destructive, at
least when it comes to eating.
The best diet is basically one of moderation. You hear about all these people
that live on legumes and plant foods and that’s probably okay, but I don’t think
it’s necessary. One certainly can metabolize a certain amount of meat, but again
it’s a question of are you eating European portions or American portions? Are
you eating meat a couple of times a week, or are you eating it every day for two
meals a day? Are you eating processed meats that are filled with fat? Or are you
eating good cuts of fairly lean meat?
To me, I just come back to moderation. Assuming that you were in pretty
good shape in your 20s, if you could maintain that weight, you would be in good
shape. The truth is at 20, you could for all sorts of reasons, eat all sorts of terrible
things and maintain that weight, because you were more physically active,
because your system was just more resilient. As you get older, you lose that
resilience. So you are more susceptible to lifestyle behaviors that can do you
harm than you were when you were younger.
WHAT CAN ADD ON MORE GOOD YEARS?
Robert Kane: Rather than exercising for the sake of exercising, try to make
changes to your lifestyle. Ride a bicycle instead of driving. Walk to the store
instead of driving. Use the stairs instead of the elevator. Build that into your
lifestyle. The chances are that you will sustain that behavior for a much longer
time.
And the name of the game here is sustaining. These things that we try—
usually after some cataclysmic event has occurred, and we now want to ward off
what seems to be the more perceptible threat of dying—don’t hold up over the
long haul. We find all sorts of reasons not to do it.
The second thing I’d tell you is don’t take up smoking. The biggest threat to
improving our lifestyles has been cigarette smoking. That trumps everything
else. Once you’re a nonsmoker, I would try to get you to learn to develop a
moderate lifestyle in regard to your weight to build into your daily routine
enough exercise to keep you going.
DOES GOING TO THE GYM HELP?
Robert Kane: Exercise has several quite distinct functions. You have
cardiovascular exercise, which we describe as aerobic exercise, which increases
your body’s capacity to process oxygen. That’s where you go out and work
really hard and raise your heart rate. Swimming would be a good way to get that
kind of exercise.
There’s also antigravity exercise. For example, if you’re trying to prevent
osteoporosis, swimming isn’t the optimal activity, because it doesn’t increase the
strength of your bones. There, working against gravity, walking, standing does
more to increase bone metabolism than swimming does.
Frank Shearer first put on water skis in 1939. At age 99, he still enjoys the
activity. “I like the outdoors and the exercise,” he says.
Then there are exercises designed to improve your balance. Tai Chi is one
people talk about, or yoga. Those are exercises that have been associated with
reducing the risk of falls.
Then there are strength exercises, which run all the way from weightlifters,
who probably put themselves into a disadvantageous state from overdeveloping
their muscles, to people who do some modest amount of weightlifting or
antigravity exercise that strengthens their muscles.
The data suggest that a moderate level of sustained exercise is quite helpful.
There are studies that show that people who run marathons tend to have much
better cardiovascular systems than people who don’t. You could say that that
says more is better, but those exercises generally take a toll on your joints. So
marathoners have good cardiovascular systems, but they will probably have to
have their joints replaced. But in general, if somebody could do a minimum of
30 minutes—maybe we could raise it to 60—of exercise at least five times a
week that would help. And it doesn’t appear to have to be all at one time,
although that seems to be better. If you did that and you could sustain it, that
would be good.
HOW CAN WE MAXIMIZE THE GOOD YEARS?
Robert Kane: Again, there are two issues here. How long can I live? The other
is: How well can I live? And those are different questions. Living an extra two
years on life support may not necessarily be your goal. The question is: Can you
delay the onset of disability? “Good years” is a very important concept.
There are some things I’d certainly recommend for what people would call
successful aging. One of them is, in fact, to have a sense of social connectedness.
Most people enjoy the company of other people, particularly other people who
they feel care about them. That seems to give you a sense of well being, whether
that raises your endorphin level or lowers your cortisol level. We don’t know
why. People have looked for biological markers, and they haven’t been
successful at finding them. But something happens that makes life more
worthwhile. The days take on more meaning.
SMOKING & SKIN
The most preventable causes of death and disease in the U.S.A. are caused by
smoking tobacco. In addition to the damage done to internal organs, smoking
also prematurely ages the skin and makes people look older. Recent studies have
shown that a smoker’s skin bears more wrinkles and other signs of premature
aging. The causes are still under investigation.
The other thing that helps a lot of people is doing something they feel is
either interesting or worthwhile. Again, different people have different things
they like to do. For instance, people talk about workaholics as being at higher
risk for stress-related illness. But there is no evidence that workaholics are
necessarily a higher risk if they really are enjoying what they’re doing. If they
are driven by some externality and feel like they have to earn more money, it
creates stress in their lives, which is probably not very healthy. So it’s very
individual when it comes to what people want to do.
For example, you can’t just say family support is good, because some family
support is good for some people, and some isn’t for others. There are people who
derive great satisfaction from being with their families. And then there are those
who become very anxious and upset when they are with their families. It is a
complex model, which is also very interactive.
But if we’re talking about things that give you a sense of fulfillment, a good
life, the sense of being valued, the sense of being cared for, and the sense that
you are liked—these are all very positive.
Tom Perls: A good start to adding more good years to your life would be to get
rid of the anti-aging quackery.
Some people provide this very pernicious, ugly view of old people that’s
completely false in order to get you worried about getting older. They say they
can stop—and even reverse—aging, claims which are absolutely false. You’ve
got a bunch of people who are professing to be physicians or scientists, who are
saying that they can stop or reverse the aging process. I will tell you that real
scientists cannot do such a thing, so what makes the public think that these
people can?
It is mostly hucksterism and charlatanism. They will cost you a lot of money,
and these things do not work and, in some instances, can be bad for you. So stay
away from it. These guys are just trying to sell you stuff. What does work is
living the lifestyle of those who we know are living longer, like those people, I
suppose, living in the Blue Zones.
INTO THE BLUE ZONES
Which brings us back to the Blue Zones project. Over the course of seven years,
my team circled the globe, making several trips to each of the four Blue Zones
and meeting the remarkable people who lived there. In each place we confirmed
that people were as old as they said they were, interviewed dozens of
centenarians, worked with local medical experts, and methodically studied each
of the local lifestyles, habits, and practices.
Each Blue Zone revealed its own recipe for longevity, but, as we were to
discover, many of the fundamental ingredients were the same. These common
ingredients, our nine lessons of living longer, are deeply embedded in the
cultures we studied. I suppose you could say that our quest was for a true
fountain of youth, though this fountain does not spring from the ground but
comes to us through centuries of trial and error.
For us, it all began on a small island off the coast of Italy.
2
The Sardinian Blue Zone
The Sardinian Blue Zone
Where Women Are Strong, Family Comes First,
and Health Springs from the Rugged Hills
IN OCTOBER 1999, A SLIGHT, BESPECTACLED Italian doctor and
medical statistician named Gianni Pes stepped to the podium at an international
longevity conference in Montpellier, France, and presented an astonishing paper.
For the previous five years, he reported, he’d traced the history of 1,000
Sardinian centenarians, personally examining about 200 of them. During the
course of his research, he’d noticed a curious concentration of male centenarians
in the mountainous Barbagia region, a kidney-shaped area in the administrative
district of Ogliastra. The population there appeared to be the longest-lived in
Italy, perhaps even in the world.
In one village of 2,500 people, he said, he’d found seven centenarians—a
staggering number, given that the ratio for centenarians in the U.S. is roughly
one per 5,000. “All of the demographers attending the meeting were skeptical,”
Pes recalls. They remembered all too well the longevity claims made decades
ago about populations in Georgia in the Soviet Union, in Pakistan’s Hunza
Valley, and in Ecuador’s Vilcabamba Valley, which had all turned out to be
overstated and based on faulty data. “I had a hard time convincing them,” he
recalled.
RECORD SETTER
Born on February 21, 1875, Jeanne Calment lived for a record-setting 122 years,
164 days. Calment, a Frenchwoman, stayed mentally and physically active for
most of her life. She attributed her longevity to port wine, olive oil, and a sense
of humor.
Among those in attendance was Dr. Michel Poulain, a Belgian demographer
who’d dedicated much of the past 15 years to studying pockets of long-lived
peoples around the world. Among other things, he’d helped devise a widely
accepted technique for verifying ages, which he’d used successfully throughout
Europe and parts of Asia.
“I did not believe it,” Poulain told me later. “The number of centenarians in
Sardinia was too high to be true. I suspected misreporting. But someone
nominated me to go check it out. As it was, I was traveling to Italy anyway, and
so I said OK, I will have a look.”
A REPUTATION FOR LONGEVITY
By the time he arrived in Sardinia in January 2000, word had reached the village
of Arzana about its growing reputation as a place with an unusually high number
of centenarians. Residents in the village had organized a ceremony honoring four
of them. “They invited me to participate, but I had no data,” Poulain said. “I
could not publicly confirm that theirs was a long-lived village. I am a scientist,
and with no data, no conclusion.
But a half hour before the ceremony, I stopped by the city hall and looked at
the birth and death records, and right away I found some preliminary indications
that these documents were very accurate. I began to believe Gianni’s findings,
and so I participated in the ceremony and decided to go on with a large study to
prove the exceptional male longevity in Sardinia.”
Three months later, Poulain returned to Sardinia for the first of ten visits to
check more records and interview centenarians. He visited 40 municipalities to
establish something called the Extreme Longevity Index (ELI). This index
considered birth and death records of all centenarians born between 1880 and
1900. Little by little, he realized that this region had a phenomenally high index.
As he zeroed in on municipalities that had the greatest numbers of long-lived
people, he circled the area on a map with blue ink—giving rise to the term “Blue
Zone,” which was later adopted by demographers.
Four years later, Poulain, Pes, and six colleagues published a paper in the
journal Experimental Gerontology, in which they identified the Barbagia region
as one that had some of the longest-lived people in Sardinia. The Blue Zone
phenomenon primarily affected men, they reported. These men appeared to
retain their vigor and vitality longer than men almost anywhere else. In most
developed parts of the world, women centenarians outnumbered men four to
one. Here, the ratio was one to one.
Their study had shown that the geographic distribution of longevity in
Sardinia was not homogeneous. In at least one geographic area, the Barbagia
Blue Zone, the probability of becoming a centenarian was higher than in other
parts of the island. This area of extreme longevity was located in a mountainous
region that had been relatively isolated until recent times. “The specific
mechanism by which persons living in this territory were more likely to reach
extreme longevity remains unknown,” the researchers concluded.
As a demographer, Poulain’s work was describing populations with data, not
jumping to conclusions. Other than pointing out that other areas of extreme
longevity existed in mountainous areas, his paper did not attempt to explain why
the inhabitants of this Blue Zone were able to live so long. Unraveling this
mystery would require a multidisciplinary approach to the history, diet, and
lifestyle of local populations, he believed. Did people in this region experience
stress? And if so, how did they shed it? Did religion play a role? Traditional
medicines? Pure air? Something in the water? Did the Blue Zone hold any
secrets that might help the rest of us live longer?
BLUE ZONE’S BEGINNING
In October 2004, National Geographic photographer David McLain and I landed
in Sassari, a university town near Sardinia’s northwestern coast, to look more
deeply into this Blue Zone’s mystery. Two young Italian journalists, Gianluca
Colla and Marisa Montebella, went with us to help set up interviews, translate,
and handle logistics. Our plan was to interview at least 20 centenarians who
personified the Blue Zone culture of longevity. From these interviews we would
distill cultural characteristics, then meet with local experts who could help
explain why these characteristics might contribute to the extraordinary longevity
on the island.
Luckily for us, a Stanford University–trained evolutionary anthropologist
named Dr. Paolo Francalacci—“Please, call me Paolo”—was teaching genetics
at Sassari University. Cutting the image of a dashing young professor in his
sporting blue jeans, tweed jacket, shirt open wide at the collar, and longish
brown hair the day I met him, he led me through the narrow cobblestone streets
of the town of Alghero, past a large piazza with a fountain and outdoor cafés, to
a dimly lit 400-year old bar. We sat on benches at a corner table and ordered a
couple of beers. A man of incandescent intelligence, Francalacci was one of
those rare academics able to explain complex concepts in simple, compelling
terms, often delivered with an auctioneer’s exuberance and wild gesticulations.
He had first become interested in human evolution as a biology student at
the University of Pisa, he said. That interest led him to join the laboratory of
renowned geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza at Stanford, where he studied
human populations by looking at their genes. His specialty was analyzing
mitochondrial DNA to identify the origins of peoples—dead or alive. He had
examined mummies found in China’s Taklimakan Desert and revealed that they
were of Indo-European origins, a discovery that had brought him fame.
“We have 46 chromosomes, half from our mother and half from our father,”
he explained, hands flying about like those of an orchestra conductor. “That
means that for each gene we receive two copies, one from each parent, and these
two copies interact. This is not true for two small pieces of our DNA: the Y
chromosome, inherited from male to male (the females do not have it), and the
mitochondrial DNA, inherited from female to female (the males do have it, but
they cannot pass it to their offspring). This peculiarity makes it much easier to
trace back the history of a population through the female (in the case of
mitochondrial DNA) or male (Y chromosome) to its founding ancestors. Using
DNA, we’ve traced every human being on Earth back to founding female
lineages.”
Francalacci had used this technique on Sardinians to trace their origins back
roughly 14,000 years, he said. At that time, the world was warming after an ice
age. As the snows retreated, a small band of genetically related people in Iberia
began a journey out of the Pyrenees Mountains to the Mediterranean Sea. They
followed the coast eastward, through what is today the French Riviera and
Tuscany, and across the sea to Corsica, where they stayed briefly. Finally they
settled in Sardinia’s coastal foothills.
“Eighteen thousand years ago, during the period called the Glacial
Maximum, humans could survive in Europe only in two refuges, one in Iberia
and one in the Balkans,” he said. With the retreating of the glaciers and warming
of the climate, people started to repopulate Europe. They moved westward from
the Balkans and eastward from the Iberian Peninsula. Sardinia was populated
almost exclusively by the Iberian wave—people with the M26 lineage of Y
chromosome.
Photographed almost a century ago, this child and three Sardinian women
dressed in traditional garb gather outside a doorway in 1913.
“This M26 genetic marker is found in 35 percent of the Sardinians today,
and is very rare elsewhere,” Francalacci said. Given the genetic purity of people
in this Blue Zone, he theorized that the first Sardinians did not intermarry much
with other Mediterranean peoples. They probably survived by hunting,
gathering, and fishing. Agriculture came to Sardinia about 6,000 to 7,000 years
ago with a Neolithic people from the Levant, where agriculture had been
developed at least 3,000 years earlier.
“Our Y-chromosome data suggests that contact with these people from the
Levant was mainly cultural rather than genetic,” Francalacci said. For that
reason, the people of Sardinia remain genetically distinct from the rest of
Europe. Some of their unique traits are negative, such as higher incidences of
type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis. But others are positive, such as resistance
to malaria and high longevity rates, especially among males.
When we finished our beers, I needed a break. Interviewing Francalacci was
a bit like witnessing a verbal volcano; I hadn’t had to prompt him at all. He
invited me back to the small rooftop apartment he shared with his lovely Greek
wife, Christina. The view from their kitchen window looked out across a
jumbled plateau of red clay shingles to the sea.
Francalacci popped a disk of Barbagia folk music in his player and the
apartment filled with the nomadic, faraway sounds of Sardinia’s highlands—
shepherds’ voices harmonizing to the multi-pipe instrument called launeddas.
The musician plays it by producing a constant airflow by inhaling through his
nose and exhaling out his mouth. Francalacci opened a bottle of Sardinian
Cannonau red wine, and his animated conversation resumed.
During the middle Bronze Age, a tribal culture called the Nuraghic
civilization (in a sense, the root culture of the Sardinian Blue Zone) began in
Sardinia, he said. The Nuraghi people are named after the stone towers found all
over the island.
By the time of Christ, other civilizations had also discovered Sardinia’s
riches and charms, and for most of its early history the island was knocked
around like a rugby ball—invaded, conquered, and exploited by outsiders. The
Phoenicians and Romans arrived with their superior military might, taking over
the coasts and lowlands of the south. Native Sardinians, who had lived
throughout the island, escaped to the hilly central area. By most accounts, the
invading barbarians were nomadic and largely interested in tending their flocks.
The etymology and meaning of the word Barbagia derives from the Latin
name “Barbaria,” land of the Barbarians. Latins called a foreigner barbarus,
from the ancient Greek word barbaros, which supposedly mimics the sound of
someone trying to speak Greek. They had no interest in the arduous tasks
associated with agriculture, although they possibly learned rudiments of farming
from the Romans. “Even if ancient Sardinians knew of farming techniques, it
didn’t take,” Francalacci said. “They carried on largely as hunter-gatherers and
later as shepherds.”
Perhaps that’s why Sardinians developed an intense wariness and disdain for
visitors. Newcomers had always meant subjugation, exploitation, and taxes. So
they turned inward, developing an intense dedication to their families and
community and earning a reputation for toughness. One Barbagia proverb said it
all about foreigners: Furat chie benit dae su mare (He who comes from the sea is
here to steal).
SARDINIA FACTS
Nation: Italy
Location: Island located 120 miles west of mainland Italy
Sardinia Population: 1.6 million people
As the centuries, passed on the island, the isolated native Sardinians evolved
in their own unique environment. Many villages even retained their pre-Roman
names. “In this region,” says Francalacci, “the names of the Sardinian villages
such as Ollolai, Illorai, Irgoli, Ittiri, Orune, to name a few, sound very exotic to a
continental Italian ear like mine.” The region north of Alghero is called Nurra,
which some linguists think comes from nur, meaning “heap of stones” in the
Nuraghian language. It is also a good description of the nuraghi, the Bronze Age
towers found all over Sardinia.
The original Sardinians, in fact, did not keep their ancient Nuraghic
languages. The Romans had subjugated them long enough that by the time they
escaped to the mountains they had adopted Latin, which has survived the
centuries remarkably intact. In the Sardinian dialect spoken in the Blue Zone, for
example, the word for house is still the Latin word domus. Their pronunciation
more closely resembles Latin too. The English word sky is cielo in Italian but it
is kelu in Sardinian, preserving the hard K sound as it was pronounced in the
original Latin caelum (ka-AY-lum). The same goes for sentence structure. A
modern-day Italian says io bevo vino (I drink wine) but Sardinians would say it
as an ancient Roman would have, io vino bevo (I wine drink).
What does this have to do with longevity? “It suggests that the Sardinians’
lifestyle in the Blue Zone hasn’t changed much since the time of Christ,”
Francalacci said. “The laws of evolution dictate that a species will not evolve in
a comfortable, isolated environment where reproduction is easy. By contrast, a
species will evolve quickly in a tough environment where individuals of
different backgrounds and conditions interact. Similarly, in a place like the
Sardinian Blue Zone, there is less pressure to adapt. The people there maintained
not only their genetic features, but also their economic isolation and traditional
social values, such as the respect for elders as a source of experience, the
importance of the family clan, and the presence of unwritten laws—all of which
proved to be effective means for avoiding foreign domination over the
centuries.”
In other words, the self-imposed isolation of Sardinia created a genetic
incubator of sorts, amplifying certain traits and subduing others. Some
preliminary genetic studies, for example, seem to show that the red blood cells
of an unusually high proportion of Blue Zone centenarians are smaller than
normal, providing both a resistance to malaria and a lesser chance of dangerous
blood clots. But genetic and cultural isolation go hand in hand, Francalacci said,
putting down his wine glass and clasping his hands. “When you put the two
together you get a very interesting result.”
Francalacci and I stayed up well past midnight that night and continued our
conversation later via e-mail. Before 1950, I learned, Sardinia had looked more
like a backwater than a centenarian’s Shangri-la. Poor hygiene, poor water
quality, and a scarcity of water led to rampant infectious diseases. Dysentery,
plague, tuberculosis, malaria, and diarrhea killed many young Sardinians. As
English traveler William Henry Smyth wrote in his 1828 Sketch of the Present
State of the Island of Sardinia, “it is surprising that with such inconvenient
residences, and uncleanly habits, the natives should remain so generally healthy
as they do.”
IS IT IN THE GENES?
When D.H. Lawrence traveled across Sardinia in 1921 in search of a lifestyle of
simplicity, he found a Barbagia suited to his imagination. “Here, since endless
centuries man has tamed the impossible mountainside into terraces, he has
quarried the rock, he has fed his sheep among the thin woods, he has cut his
boughs and burnt his charcoal, he has been half domesticated even among the
wild fastnesses. This is what is so attractive…. Life is so primitive, so pagan, so
strangely heathen and half-savage.”
Prosperity came to Sardinia after the late 1940s. The Rockefeller Foundation
financed an effort that wiped out malaria, and a post-war economic boom in Italy
brought jobs and paved roads to Barbagia. Along with them came vaccinations,
antibiotics, and modernized health care. Only now could the Sardinian Blue
Zone’s combination of genes and lifestyle work its real magic on the population.
Before we left Sassari, photographer David McLain and I picked up a few
more useful bits of information. Dr. Luca Deiana, a local politician who headed
the Akea study, one of the first investigations of Sardinian centenarians (akea is
a Sardinian greeting that means roughly “may you live to be 100”) pointed us in
the direction of the G6PD gene. A defect on the gene is connected to favism, a
disease triggered by consuming fava beans. We know the G6PD gene also
protects some Sardinians from malaria, said geneticist Dr. Antonio Cao, who
was himself a poster boy of healthy aging at 78. Diet probably plays an
important role, he added. “Barbagia is not like the rest of the Mediterranean.
They don’t eat a Mediterranean diet.”
Dr. Gianni Pes, the scientist who first delivered the Blue Zone data to
demographers, also told us that environment and lifestyle might be more
important factors than genetics to explain the longevity of Sardinians. “Consider,
for instance, the genes of inflammation. We expected to find something
interesting in Sardinian DNA. We studied several tens of gene variants related to
inflammation but we didn’t find any evidence of their role in survival of
Sardinians. The same for genes related to cancer, and those related to
cardiovascular disease. I suspect that the characteristics of the environment, the
lifestyle, and the food are by far more important for a healthy life.”
Armed with these insights and a backpack full of academic papers, David,
Gianluca, Marisa, and I finally left the coast for Sardinia’s Blue Zone. As we
drove into the island’s central highlands, we entered quite another world. The
road snaked upward through increasingly rocky terrain that showed little
evidence of human impact. Indeed, Sardinia consisted almost entirely of
mountainous terrain as it rose toward the massive Gennargentu range to the east.
Except for patches of hardwood forests where blackthorn, yew, oak, and ash
trees grew, and the occasional vineyard, we saw only rough pastureland.
“My tongue still works perfectly,” says Raffaella Monne, 107. “I can talk a lot.”
I recalled the many warnings we’d seen or heard about Barbagia. “You
might think twice about wandering around many of the desolate villages of the
interior, especially in Nuoro province,” wrote the author of one guidebook.
Our friend Franco Diaz from Cagliari, Sardinia’s largest city, confirmed our
initial impression of Barbagia as a difficult place where people eke out a living
from a rugged land by raising sheep and goats. The residents there have a
reputation for kidnapping, stealing, and settling scores at the end of very long
knives, he said. “A vendetta can last generations. A son of one family might get
shot today for something his father did decades ago.” Franco’s daughter agreed.
“If a boy catches you looking at his girl, expect to be confronted,” she warned.
“And remember, everyone in Barbagia has a knife in his pocket.”
DUELING CENTENARIANS
As we drove into the village of Arzana on a drizzly October day, we saw smoke
curling out of chimneys into the lingering mist. Villages at the heart of Sardinia’s
Blue Zone—Fonni, Gavoi, Villagrande Strisaili, Talana, and Arzana—have
evolved over the centuries from clusters of shepherd huts to modern
communities of a few thousand residents. Most towns still possess a precarious
charm, with ancient whitewashed houses cascading down cobblestone streets.
The streets of Arzana seemed all but deserted.
I could see why residents here might be physically fit. A trip to a friend’s
house or the local market meant a workout more rigorous than a half hour on a
StairMaster. But the ominous creep of modernization was easy to see. Cars and
trucks were parked in front of most houses, satellite dishes faced out from
rooftops, and pizza, hamburger, and ice cream shops dotted the main street. To
unlock Sardinia’s longevity secrets, we needed to focus on Barbagia’s traditional
lifestyle—the one that existed before prosperity arrived in the 1950s.
EQUAL EXERCISE
Everyday hikes taken by Sardinian shepherds can burn up to 490 calories an
hour; to get the equivalent, try 120 minutes of brisk walking (about 3.5 mph), 90
minutes of gardening, 2 hours of bowling, or 120 minutes of golfing (be sure to
carry your bag).
Our plan was to track down as many as a dozen Blue Zone centenarians.
Everybody in town knew them, we discovered, and people treated them like
celebrities. On tavern walls, instead of posters of bikinied women or fast cars,
you’d see calendars featuring the “Centenarian of the Month.”
All we needed to do was ask a villager where the centenarians lived and a
helpful finger would point out the house. We’d knock on the door, introduce
ourselves, and invariably be invited in. During the first week, I met 17
centenarians—8 men and 9 women. Most centenarians, we discovered, spent
their time somewhere between their bed and their favorite sitting chair. Their
days were punctuated by meals with their families and perhaps a stroll to meet
friends. As a rule, they had worked hard their whole lives as farmers or
shepherds. Their lives unfolded with daily and seasonal routines. They raised
families who were now caring for them. Their lives were extraordinarily
ordinary—with one exception.
In Silanus, a village of some 2,400 people on the slope of the Gennargentu
Mountains whose origins date to Nuraghic prehistory, David and I met 102-yearold Giuseppe Mura. We stepped out of the hard, hot midday sun into the 19thcentury whitewashed home Giuseppe shares with his 65-year-old daughter Maria
and her family. Inside it was cool and pleasantly damp; it smelled vaguely of
sausages and red wine. Giuseppe sat at the end of an ancient, wooden table,
flanked by Maria and his son, Giovanni, who’d stopped by for a visit.
Both father and son wore shepherd’s caps, wool suit coats, and black boots
—the daily uniform of the Sardinian peasant. Muted afternoon sunlight sifted
through finely embroidered, diaphanous curtains. Giuseppe’s eyes caught mine
and he nodded agreeably.
“These men are from America,” Maria shouted in her father’s ear. “They’d
like to interview you for National Geographic magazine.”
“What?” He shouted back.
“They want to interview you for a magazine article. The National
Geographic!”
“Fine with me,” Giuseppe snapped. “But if they want money, tell them they
can go to hell.”
I blanched, but Maria and Giovanni burst out laughing. They understood
their father’s biting sense of humor, which was, I’d soon learn, characteristically
Sardinian. I had some questions that Drs. Paul Costa and Luigi Ferrucci from the
National Institute on Aging had given me to pose to centenarians. They were
nonleading questions, carefully crafted to tease out the lifestyle by eliciting a
narrative. Instead of asking a man what he ate when he was a child, the question
would inquire, “Can you think about things you do every day or have done most
days of your life?”
I posed my questions to Maria, who translated them for her father. I learned
that Giuseppe had worked steadily his whole life, first as a farmer, and then as
shepherd. He’d usually put in a plodding, 16-hour day tilling the earth or
following his sheep into pasture. On most days he came home for lunch, took a
nap, and then spent an hour or two in the late afternoon with his friends in the
village square. He’d return to the fields until dark. He never much busied
himself with raising his eight children. He left that and all other affairs of the
house to his wife.
Giuseppe’s diet consisted largely of fava beans, pecorino cheese, bread, and
meat as he could afford it, which was rarely in the early days. Maria estimated
that her father drank a liter of Sardinian wine every day of his adult life, and
more during festivals, when he tended to be the life of the party.
“Is there anything unusual about Giuseppe’s upbringing?” I asked.
Giovanni paused and looked questioningly at Maria. “Yes, there is,”
Giovanni answered. “Giuseppe was raised by a single mother. His father got his
mother pregnant and then went off to war. When he returned, he took up with
another woman and soon got her pregnant too, leaving my father’s mother to
have her baby alone.”
Giuseppe listened to the story staring down at his folded hands, head
hanging down. I could tell that even though more than a century had passed, the
story was a source of shame for the family.
“Well, it looks like Giuseppe turned out all right,” I added hopefully.
“Yes,” Giovanni replied. “But there’s more. One Sunday morning, when
Giuseppe’s father was on his way to church with his new wife, Giuseppe’s
mother intercepted him and shot him dead, murdered him right on the church
steps. The police put her in jail, but everyone in the village knew that her honor
had been violated. The police let her out after only four months.”
What happened to the other woman and her child then? I was guessing that
life was pretty difficult for a single mother in the village in first few years of the
20th century.
“That’s another story in our village’s lore,” Maria said, taking up the tale.
“The other child, Giuseppe’s half brother, was named Raimondo Arca. Giuseppe
did not even know he had a half brother until one day when he was 17 years old
and was playing a Sardinian game with other boys in the village square.
“It was a game of elimination,” she continued, “much like rock, paper, and
scissors, but the Sardinian version often turns aggressive. Giuseppe and
Raimondo found themselves in a final round of elimination when a dispute
erupted and a fistfight ensued.
“Raimondo was giving my father a licking when a passing villager who
knew the story of their mothers broke them up saying, ‘Brothers shouldn’t fight.’
The secret was out, and once they learned it, they became friends and remained
so ever since. In fact, Raimondo is still alive and lives right down the street. The
whole village celebrated when then two of them turned 100 two years ago.”
David and I looked at each other slack-jawed. In the United States only
about one male in 20,000 reaches age 100. The chances that there would be two
centenarians in the same family is astronomically unlikely, unless of course their
father passed down an extraordinary set of genes to both of his sons.
The interview continued another 90 minutes. Maria served us wine and
cured ham, followed by cups of hot coffee. In the course of our conversation, we
learned that Giuseppe had a special box where he kept his meager life savings
and other important objects that he had collected through his long life. He wore
the key to the box on a string around his neck, which he closely guarded.
David, always on the lookout for a telling picture, envisioned a portrait of
Giuseppe with his life’s treasures. He asked Maria if it were possible for
Giuseppe to open up the box for us.
“Papa,” Maria again shouted in her father’s ear. “These men want to see
what’s in your box.”
“What?” Giuseppe murmured back.
“These men want to see what’s in your treasure box, where you keep your
money,” she repeated, this time reaching for the key around his neck and holding
it up for him to see.
“You tell those Americans to go to hell,” he shrieked, slapping the key out of
her hand. Spittle shot from his mouth and splattered on the table before me. “I
show them what’s my box, all right. Right up their nose!”
Even though Maria and Giovanni once again laughed at their father’s
outburst, we took this as our cue to leave.
WINE GOAT’S MILK AND MASTIC OIL
Though most centenarians we met were sharp enough to hold a conversation and
answer questions, a majority of them were homebound and under the care of a
daughter or granddaughter. What I learned directly from them was limited by
their imperfect memories.
I realized that if I wanted to get a sense of the authentic Sardinian lifestyle, I
needed to spend time with someone younger who was still working and living in
the traditional way. I suspected that clues to the extraordinary longevity in this
Blue Zone were the kind I needed to observe rather than hear described in an
interview. I figured if I could participate in a day in the life of a true Barbagian
Sardinian I could observe nuances.
FLAVONOIDS
Sardinian red wine isn’t the only place to find flavonoids. Brightly colored fruits
and vegetables and dark chocolate also contain them. Studies have shown that a
diet high in flavonoids is associated with a reduced incidence of certain cancers
and heart disease.
As it happened, photographer David McLain had already met such a person.
While I had been working my way through interviews in the eastern part of the
Blue Zone, David had been canvassing the western part for situations to
illustrate our story (National Geographic photographers and writers rarely travel
together). He called me on the phone one afternoon to say he’d met a 75-yearold shepherd in the 3,000-year-old village of Silanus who still tended his own
sheep, made his own wine, and lived in a traditional Sardinian home. His name
was Tonino Tola, David said, “but I call him ‘The Giant.’”
When I caught up with Tonino a week later, he was slaughtering a cow in the
shed behind his house, his arms elbow-deep in the animal’s carcass. A strapping,
barrel-chested man, he withdrew his fist from the steaming mess and then
strongly gripped my hand, vise-like, with a moist, bloodied handshake.
“Good morning,” he boomed, then plunged his hands in again, this time to
reel out several yards of glistening intestines. It was 9:45 a.m. on a cool
November morning. Tonino had been up since 4 and had already pastured his
sheep, cut wood, trimmed olive trees, fed his cows, and eviscerated this 18month-old cow that was now hanging spread-eagle from the rafters. Members of
his family surrounded him.
Tonino’s son and three sons-in-law helped while his daughter cradled his
five-month-old, wide-eyed grandson, Filippo, who regarded the scene with a
cooing glee. With rolled-up sleeves and high-water pants, Tonino jumped from
pulling cow’s intestines to tickling his grandson with equal exuberance.
The men joked as they followed the age-old ritual of reducing the cow to
meat for their family. The butchering was timed for late fall, when cooler
temperatures minimize maggot-laying flies and make the meat easier to
preserve. The cow would provide meat for two families for the season as well as
for several friends who would receive gift packages of beef.
Butchering cows within city limits was illegal, Tonino told me, but this giant
of a man lived by a more traditional Sardinian code. What would happen if the
police caught him, I asked. “We’ll pay a fine,” Tonino replied breathlessly,
addressing a gaping cavity, the insides of which he was scraping with a
menacing blade, “or give him a piece of meat.”
Shepherd Tonino Tola, 75, has climbed the hills of Sardinia for his entire life.
Regular physical activity is one reason why Sardinians live so long.
Later I was invited into his low-ceilinged kitchen for papassini—a Sardinian
cookie made with raisins, almonds, and a jam made from cooked wine (saba).
Inside, a small fire from a wood burning stove heated the room. Tonino’s wife,
Giovanna, a heavyset woman with quick, intelligent eyes, sat at the table. She
offered us wine. (“No thank you” was not an option.) Tonino may have ruled the
butcher shed, but Giovanna ruled the house. I posed questions to Tonino, and she
answered them.
“Tonino lives to work,” she told me, with her husky arms folded, “from early
morning to late night. Look at him; he’s aching to get back to butchering the cow
right now.” Sure enough, Tonino was drumming his fingers impatiently on the
table; his eyebrows arched guiltily when his wife pointed at him. “Meanwhile, I
take care of the house, the children, and the finances. I make sure we don’t run
out of money,” she sighed. “He works, I worry.”
I asked Tonino and Giovanna both about their past. They often finished each
other’s sentences. Tonino had raised sheep since he was five years old. He and
Giovanna married when they were in their early 20s, and they quickly had four
children. When their family was young, in the 1950s, they were very poor. They
ate what they produced on their land—mostly bread, cheese, and vegetables
(zucchini, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and most significantly, fava beans).
Meat was at best a weekly affair, boiled on Sunday with pasta and roasted during
festivals.
They usually (Giovanna made the call) sold their animals to buy grain
staples, from which they made their pastas and traditional breads—the flat,
squarish pistoccu made with barley or bran flour and potatoes, and the famous
lined, paper-thin carta da musica (also known as pane carasau) named for its
resemblance to sheet music. Sheep and goat milk products contributed most of
the protein. Their small vineyard grew Cannonau grapes for wine.
Their diet was fairly typical of families in the region before the Americanstyle food culture arrived, as surveys from before the 1940s revealed.
“Shepherds and peasants in Sardinia have an exceptionally simple diet, which is
extraordinarily lean even by Mediterranean standards,” a 1941 survey reported.
“Bread is by far the main food. Peasants leave early in the morning to the fields
with a kilogram of bread in their saddlebag…. At noon their meal consists only
of bread, with some cheese among wealthier families, while the majority of the
workers are satisfied with an onion, a little fennel, or a bunch of ravanelli. At
dinner, the reunited family eats a single meal consisting of a vegetable soup
(minestrone) to which the richest add some pasta. In most areas, families ate
meat only once a week, on Sunday. In 26 of 71 municipalities surveyed, meat is
a luxury eaten only during festivals, not more than twice a month. Interestingly
for a Mediterranean culture, fish did not figure prominently into the diet.”
The report went on to say that shepherds drank wine daily. “In the fields,
some peasants drink wine; most of them drink wine only at the evening meal,
and no more than a quarter bottle.” The region’s Cannonau grapes endured the
harsh Sardinian sun by producing more red pigment to protect from the
ultraviolet rays. These grapes traditionally were allowed to macerate longer than
in any other part of the island during winemaking. The result was a red wine
with two to three times the level of artery-scrubbing flavonoids than other wines.
Goat’s milk and mastic oil may be Sardinia’s other two longevity elixirs.
Research at the University of Sassari is looking at the question of whether
proteins and fatty acids in Sardinian goat milk may help protect people from the
typical diseases of aging such as atherosclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease. Mastic
oil (with its antibacterial and anti-mutagenic properties) was used in some parts
of Sardinia in place of olive oil.
Back at Tonino’s house, we washed down a dozen cookies with a few
glasses of wine. After a sedentary hour, Tonino could take it no more and
erupted out of his seat. Almost every day for the past 70 years, he had walked or
ridden his donkey the 5-mile journey to tend his sheep on his family’s
mountaintop pasture. But today, because he invited me, we would drive.
The road snaked up several hundred feet through forests and around tight
curves and many unprotected drop-offs that promised a quick death. In America
such a road would be illegal—or at least labeled “dangerous.” Here it was
business as usual.
We stopped at a high plateau fenced in by an ancient rock wall where 200
sheep had gnawed vegetation down to nubs. At the highest point of the pasture, a
teepee-shaped rock-and-stick structure called a pinnetta commanded a 360degree view of the property. In this structure, the likes of which dated back to the
Bronze Age, Tonino slept with his sheep most summer nights. At the moment,
though, he was looking jaunty in his leather spats, shepherd’s cap, and riding
coat as he strode through a narrow opening in a stonewall, counting his sheep as
they followed him.
When three sheep tried to squeeze through, they knocked over a section of
the wall. With disquieting ease, Tonino hoisted the heavy rocks back into place.
Then he leaned back on a rock outcropping and assumed the age-old role of
sentinel, cutting a distinguished profile against the emerald green plains below.
“Do you ever get bored?” I asked impulsively. Before the words left my
mouth, I realized I’d uttered a heresy. Tonino swung around and pointed at me,
dried blood still rimming his fingernail. “I’ve loved living here every day of my
life,” he boomed. After a pause, he continued. “I love my animals and taking
care of them. We don’t really need the cow that I butchered today. Half of the
meat will go to my son, and most of the other half we’ll share with our
neighbors. But without the animals and the work it takes to raise them, I would
be sitting in my house doing nothing; I would have little purpose in life. When I
think of them, I think of my children. I like it when my kids come home and they
find something here that I have produced.”
THE POWER OF LOVING?
From everything I had seen in this Blue Zone, Tonino’s values were also those of
the region’s population in general. People here possessed a reverence for family.
Perhaps it had something to do with their historic isolation, surrounded as they
were by hostile outsiders; they had to depend on one another. All the
centenarians I met told me la famiglia was the most important thing in their lives
—their purpose in life.
In America, seniors tend to live apart from their children and grandchildren,
often sent off to retirement homes when they become unable to care for
themselves. But that rarely happened here. A combination of family duty,
community pressure, and genuine affection for elders kept centenarians with
their families until death. This gave people over 80 a huge advantage: They
received immediate care when injured or ill, and perhaps most significantly, felt
loved and a sense of belonging. A happy by-product was that grandparents
stayed involved in children’s lives.
Maria Angelica Sale and her family were a perfect example of this. I met
Maria, called Nona by her family, in Gavoi, one of the island’s highest villages.
She was sitting in her living room, a clean, well-lighted place with embroidered
tablecloths, colorful carpets, and a large window that looked out onto the street.
Her 60-year-old daughter, Pietrina, served me coffee and translated my questions
from Italian into Sardinian, the only language most of the centenarians speak.
Maria had raised her four daughters, survived life under the Fascists, and
worked alongside her husband from 4 a.m. to dusk. When her husband died, she
moved in with her daughter at age 54. Then she helped raise her grandchildren,
cooking food, cleaning house, and, until just two years ago, knitting their
clothes.
On the day of my visit, Maria seemed subdued. Mostly blind, deaf, and
unable to walk by herself, she was confined to a chair. But she was lucid, serene,
and exuded a certain feeling of satisfaction with her life. Her gray hair was
pulled back in a bun, revealing the soft wrinkles in her face. Leaning forward
slightly to hear my questions, she would then sit back and seem to savor the
memories they sparked before answering with a smile. The whole time, Maria’s
daughter held her mother’s hands, which lay folded in her lap.
I asked Pietrina how her mother had managed to live so long, and she gave
me a one-word answer: grandchildren. “It’s about loving and being loved,” she
said. “Not only has Nona helped raise the children, but she has also always told
them they must get educated. Sometimes she gives them money, and she always
prays for them. In return the children have felt this love and have returned it.
They know that Nona expects them to succeed, so they try harder.”
Two years ago, when she was at age 100, Nona got very sick. “She was in
bed for days,” said Pietrina. “I thought she was going to die, so I called the
family. Everyone came—4 daughters and 13 grandchildren—many of whom
traveled back from the mainland. On the day we thought she was going to die,
everyone had gathered around the bed to say goodbye. We didn’t actually think
she could hear us. But when my nephew, who was a failing student, leaned over
to say how much he was going to miss her, Nona opened her eyes and said, ‘I’m
not going anywhere until you’re done with the university.’ Nona got better and
my nephew went back and graduated.”
It would be hard to overestimate the importance of family in the Blue Zone.
According to Dr. Luca Deiana, who has studied centenarians for more than a
decade, some 95 percent of those who live to 100 in Barbagia do so because they
have a daughter or granddaughter to care for them. Grandparents provide love,
childcare, financial help, wisdom, expectations, and motivation to perpetuate
traditions and push children to succeed. This may add up to healthier, better
adjusted, and longer-lived children, and it seems to certainly give the population
a healthy bump in longevity.
“SARDONIC” IS RIGHT
But what is it about men in the Sardinian Blue Zone? Statistically, their story is
the most extraordinary. In the Blue Zone, 47 men and 44 women lived past their
100th birthdays in a population of 17,865 born between 1880 and 1900—a rate
of centenarians that exceeds America’s by about a factor of 30. If the ratio of
men to women among Sardinian centenarians was typical, the region should
have produced only 10 male centenarians during the period. But it didn’t. So
why are men so extraordinarily long-lived here and not women?
Perhaps it has something to do with the different burdens they carry. The
men were “quiet, and kind, and sensitive to the natural flow of life, and quite
without airs,” D. H. Lawrence observed, while women had “dangerous and hard
assurance as they strode along so blaring. I would not like to tackle one of
them.”
Sardinian men seem to possess a temperament that enables them to shed
stress. They are at once grumpy and likable, and often joke at the expense of one
another. (It’s probably no coincidence that the word sardonic has its roots on this
island.) The things they have in common, according to physician Gianni Pes, are
strong will, high self-esteem, and great stubbornness. “This is actually the
national character of Sardinian men,” he says, “and may well explain their
success in surviving in unfavorable circumstances.”
In Talana, one of five whitewashed villages that hang along Barbagia’s
coastal mountains like a string of pearls, Marisa and I met a 90-year-old
shepherd named Sebastiano Murru. We had heard about his extraordinary vigor
and had spent an afternoon searching for him. Early in the evening someone
pointed him out to us standing at a bar with a half dozen friends, all much
younger. He was wearing a shepherd’s cap, tweed blazer, and black work boots.
Though short in stature, he had an erect posture and his sly smile gave him a
commanding presence. “Are you Sebastiano Murru?” Marisa asked, approaching
him tentatively.
“I don’t know. I was too young to remember when they named me,” he
replied matter-of-factly. Sebastiano’s friends all laughed.
Then she asked how old he was.
“Sixteen,” he responded, smirking. His friends erupted in laughter.
We noticed an empty beer glass in front of him, and asked him if he drinks.
“No, my doctor told me not to drink. Especially not milk.” He accepted a beer
anyway and toasted my health. He was standing next to Marisa, who was 39 and
attractive, so I returned the toast, recalling Groucho Marx: “May you always feel
as young as the woman you’re with.” He looked at Marisa, examined her from
head to toe and rejoined, “Do I look like a cradle robber?”
HUMBLED BY A HUNDRED-YEAR-OLD
At 103, Giovanni Sannai was good-natured, but lacked the edge. He lived alone
in small house close to his son in the village of Orosei. He received us at his
kitchen table, where he greeted us with open arms and a tumbler of wine—which
he insisted we drink with him. It was 9:30 in the morning.
Giovanni Sannai, 103, sits at the head of the table surrounded by his extended
family.
With his husky frame and full head of graying hair, he projected the image of
a man 30 years younger. He had an easy smile that made us feel sincerely
welcome. I interviewed him for about two hours, during which time about a
dozen neighbors stopped in to say hello. He greeted each of them with the same
smile and tumbler of wine. Soon we had an audience.
He had an inexplicable quality that made you want to be around him; he was
interesting and interested and up for new experiences. At one point, after he told
me how strong he used to be, I gamely challenged him to an arm wrestle. He
accepted. His friends surrounded us. I figured I’d just let him win. After all, I
was 60 years younger.
I clasped his thick hand, fixed his gaze, and easily got the jump, taking his
hand off-center. But it was a trick. He held my arm at about a 45-degree angle
for several long moments until I tired and let up. Then he slammed my arm
down on his side of the table. I couldn’t have won if I had wanted to. Everyone
laughed.
He confirmed many of the same things other centenarians had told me. He
drank goat’s milk for breakfast, walked at least six miles a day, and loved to
work. For most of his life, he woke early and spent his day in the pastures. In the
winter months, from November to April, he would herd his sheep over 100 miles
to grassier lowland pastures. He made these journeys on foot, sleeping in
pinnettas at night and eating only carta da musica bread, pecorino cheese, wine,
sheep’s milk, and the occasional roasted lamb—which they could obtain along
the way. When I asked if he’d ever been stressed in his life, he looked
flummoxed. I asked the question in a different way.
“Sometimes, but my wife was in charge of the house, and I was in charge of
the field,” he said. “What’s there to worry about in the field?” Then he added,
“Mostly I’ve always tried to remember that when you get good things from life,
enjoy them, because they won’t be there forever.”
Gianni’s words were poignantly prescient. Sardinians today have already
taken on many of the trappings of modern life. Mechanization and technology
have replaced long hours and hard work; cars and trucks have eliminated much
of the need to walk long distances; a culture disseminated by television is
replacing the one that put the emphasis on family and community; and junk
foods are replacing the whole-grain breads and fresh vegetables traditionally
consumed here. Young people are fatter, less inclined to follow tradition, and
more outwardly focused (which also could lead to a dilution of this amazing
gene pool). In 1960, almost no one in Sardinia’s Blue Zone was overweight.
Now 15 percent of adolescents are. The most important and unique longevity
factors have disappeared or are disappearing quickly from residents’ everyday
lives.
SARDINIA’S LONGEVITY SECRETS
So what was the secret to longevity in Sardinia? Did it begin in the Bronze Age,
when islanders retreated into the mountains, turned inward, intermarried, and
developed a strong allegiance to community and family? Did that explain their
traditional social values, such as the sense of hospitality, the importance of the
family clan, the presence of unwritten laws, which were developed over the
centuries? Perhaps their self-imposed isolation had created a genetic incubator of
sorts that amplified certain traits and subdued others over the generations in a
combination that favored longevity.
GOAT’S MILK
When compared to co…
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