No retirement homes, polyphenol-rich wine and strong genes, mixed with a physically tough, yet low-stress, lifestyle are the main longevity factors we noted in our third Blue Zone location.
In contrast to our stays in Okinawa and Cost Rica, where we spent about six weeks each, our time in the Blue Zone of Sardinia was less than three weeks. Sardinia proved to be a tougher nut to crack in terms of meeting locals and speaking about longevity, especially in the less-populated and non-touristic mountainous areas which make up the “official” Blue Zone areas of Sardinia. Language was the main obstacle for us. Although we speak Spanish, which helped us a bit in terms of understanding Italian, communicating or asking questions much beyond what hand signals could do was difficult. That said, we were still able to experience life in this Blue Zone and we left with a sense of accomplishment, now having visited and truly experienced life in three of the five original Blue Zones.
As in our previous Blue Zone stays, our visit served to not only confirm what Dan Buettner wrote in the Blue Zones book, but to also live and “practice” elements of this Blue Zone lifestyle. As with bicycles, it’s one thing to read about how to ride a bike, yet another to actually ride.
Sardinians are, as a generality, wary of outsiders given their long history with foreign invaders. In fact, this is likely one of the factors driving longevity in Sardinia. Over the centuries, native Sardinians, who are genetically more akin to Spanish or north Africans than Italians, survived foreign conquests by moving up to the mountains where the terrain and weather is harsher than on the beautiful coasts. They adapted, and these tough conditions kept them away from the foreigner invaders who couldn’t be bothered to chase them into the hills. This also served as to thin the gene pool of weaker links! So, strong genes, stemming from tough life over the generations, are definitely at play here.
There are a number of villages in the central part of the island, specifically in the Ogliastra and Barbaria regions, which historically have had a high concentration of centenarians, and were the first areas in the world actually identified as “Blue Zones”. These villages are all set in very rugged, mountainous areas. And like we experienced in Okinawa and Costa Rica, the element of walking up and down hills, especially before everyone had cars, must help with keeping fit. Historically, the men were primarily shepherds, a low-stress job save the occasional lost sheep, while the women ran the household and did the cooking. Men still gather in the evenings in town squares to socialize over wine.
Family is sacred
In Nicoya, Costa Rica, we visited a retirement home (known for its sexually active/promiscuous residents), yet in Sardinia there are no retirement homes to visit. Family in Sardinia is sacred, and part of that is a deep respect for elders. Aging parents are taken care of by their children. Our neighbor in the town of Meana Sarda, Maria, is 90 and stays in her own house during the day, but spends every night in her son’s house nearby. She invited us in for coffee but was a bit off in her well-meaning attempt as she put the coffee pot in the oven instead of on the stove. We were, nonetheless, grateful for her attempt.
Sardinia is filled with these mountainside villages, many built on steep slopes, and some appear to be thriving. We attended a raucous Carnevale parade one evening in Ogliastra, but many of the villages we visited were obviously dying a slow death as the old folks die and the younger generation is lured away to cities like Cagliari or Rome.
We stayed in the home of one young Sardinian, however, who chose to return to her small village to be close to her Mom and share her culture with visitors like us. Chiara runs an Airbnb cottage in Paulilatino, and offers different cultural experiences like this cooking class we joined. Learn about the special flour used to make the Sardinian “gnocchi” in the following video.
Be on the lookout for Sardinian wine made with Cannonau grapes. These are a Sardinian-specific variety of grape which have a thick skin in order to survive the hot summers. The result is a higher-than-normal level of polyphenols, or flavonoids, the artery-scrubbing element common to most red wines. Helps to prevent, or at least postpone, heard disease.
We head to the hills
Our stay with Chiara led us to an introduction to a journalist from the Blue Zone village of Perdasdefogu, a town with a least one official longevity record certified by the Guinness Book of World Records. A two-hour drive up into the mountains of Ogliastra was necessary to get to Perdasdefogu and there, sure enough, we found the family-owned establishment which the locals call the “Longevity Bar”. The bar is owned by the Melis family, which set their final world record in 2014 as the largest and oldest group of siblings alive. Nine siblings in all, with a combined age of over 837 years (an average 93 years old). Several of the siblings have since passed on, but one still oversees the local family bar, which is run by his children.
Marco served us drinks while his Dad, now 96, was at church (note that faith and religion is common to all the Blue Zones). In two words, Marco accredited his Father’s longevity to “hard work”. Having a business which one can stay involved with until the very end seems like a good idea, as it can serve as a daily purpose for living.
Summing it all up
Like other Blue Zone locations, Sardinia’s pockets of longevity are surely fading now. Ironically, modernity makes life easier, but it is resulting in less physical movement, the breaking of family ties, and more processed and fast foods like pizza being consumed versus the whole-food diet traditional eaten here.
We are grateful for the visit we had to this rugged and beautiful island, where the local wine, good genes and a strong family support system have been key factors to this Blue Zone. Three down, two to go!
Note: Find Chiara’s house and experiences in Paulilatino, Sardinia, on Airbnb HERE.