What the 'Blue Zone' island of Sardinia can teach us about living longer

What's the secret behind Sardinia's healthy population? A respect for elders and family tradition, functional exercise, a big daily lunch and a relaxed work life.
Image: The Spiaggia Capriccioli beach on the island of Sardinia, near Italy, on July 30, 2018.
The Spiaggia Capriccioli beach on the island of Sardinia, near Italy, on July 30, 2018.Sean Gallup / Getty Images file
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By Nicole Spector

When explorer, researcher and author Dan Buettner first started investigating the concept of Blue Zones (the five regions across the globe where people live the longest), he was immediately captured by Sardinia, an Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea.

“I started researching back in 2004, and a scientist told me about this little known area that demographers had zeroed in on with that had an extraordinarily high number of centenarians,” Buettner tells NBC News BETTER. “I reached Dr. Gianni Pes, who had been doing research on Sardinia for years. He was searching census data records to [detect the longest-living populations] and had been checking them off with blue checks. This area of Sardinia had such a profusion of blue checkmarks that it showed up like a blue blob. That’s how it came to be called the Blue Zone, and then I expanded that idea to include other places.”

In Sardinia, there are as many male centenarians as there are women — a rarity

Buettner points out that Sardinia was striking not so much because of the general longevity numbers, but specifically around the longevity of men, who generally have shorter lifespans than women.

“Demographically this region is different because it's where the men, specifically, live longest,” Buettner says. “For every one male centenarian in the U.S there are five women centenarians; in Sardinia, it’s 1:1.”

Why are they prone to living so long?

As with every Blue Zone, Buettner asserts that there’s no one determining cause; rather, it is essential to consider a constellation of factors that as a whole, contribute to longevity.

A farmer selling produce on a side road in Sardinia.Sebastian Piras Photography

Reverence for and inclusion of elder generations

Unlike in the U.S, where elderly people live separately in retirement or nursing homes, Sardinians don’t dismiss their elders. If anything, they promote them.

“What Americans have to learn that Sardinians instinctively know is that older people possess wisdom,” says Buettner. “And they respect that wisdom, whether it’s the sum of their experience or their [insights] on ways to plant, when to sow, how to deal with drought or pests.”

Not only are older people revered for their hard-earned, long-lived wisdom, they’re also put to work (if able) like everyone else in the family.

“It would shame the family to put aging parents in a retirement home, so when older people are at home they're put to work tending garden, cleaning house, doing cooking or watching the kids,” says Buettner.

Sebastian Piras, a photographer and filmmaker from Sardinia who now lives in NYC but maintains a home there and visits often, says that commonly older family members live with their their grown children.

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“Usually there will be two or three generations of a family living in the same household,” says Piras. “If older people do move out, they’re checked on every day by their family. The family connection is extremely tight, and there is [an effort] in keeping family together.”

The local wine (cannonau) is rich in antioxidants

In recent years, Piras has observed that dietary habits are expanding in Sardinia. This seems to be a result of both the region becoming more accessible to outsiders, as well as an influx of immigrants bringing their own styles to the kitchen.

But one staple ingredient perseveres: cannonau wine, which Buettner points out is particularly high in antioxidants.

“Our traditional wine, cannonau, is made from the grenache grape,” says Piras. “To this day, when you order the house wine in a bar, you’ll get this wine from a local vineyard that doesn’t even have a label on the bottle. It’s usually served in a glass that is just bigger than a shot glass, but culturally, there’s a tradition of buying your friend a glass and then they buy you one and then someone else buys you one and the [cycle continues].”

"Peasant food" and functional exercise

Buettner, whose forthcoming book “The Blue Zones Kitchen: 100 Recipes to Live to 100” features dietary secrets from each of the Blue Zones, including Sardinia, says that the Sardinian cuisine is essentially “peasant food.”

“The food is beans, greens and whole grains,” says Buettner. “They also eat a lot of bread and cheese, mostly Pecorino and food from their garden.”

Piras shares that where grew up, in Barbagia, Sardinia in the 1960s and seventies, homemade pasta was heavy on the menu, as was meat — (lamb and pork, namely).

“In my area especially, meat is a major part of the diet,” says Piras. “The specialities are suckling pig, lamb, and some beef. Most of the vegetables would be limited to just very basic radishes, fennel and celery. Depending on the season, you also have a lot of wild asparagus which has a very intense flavor — not like what you find in the U.S — as well as asparagus, mushrooms and chard.”

All this pork (though Piras asserts that suckling pig is more of an “occasion” dish) and wine consumption (no matter its organic and local profile) has me wondering how these people live so long! Buettner contests that diet is responsible for “maybe only 25 percent” of the longevity picture in Sardinia. “People tend to go down this rabbit hole that diet is everything, but it’s really a small part of the big picture.”

A bigger component contributing to the longevity of Sardinians may be the amount of exercise people are doing every day.

Because of the steep, mountainous nature of the landscape, and the active “shepherd’s lifestyle”, as Buettner says, “they are getting low intensity and medium intensity exercise all the time. There are dozens of periods of physical exertion throughout the day, and people aren’t driving for the most part; they’re walking.”

Lunch is the biggest meal of the day

“In Sardinia, lunch is the biggest meal of the day — much like our dinner here in the U.S,” says Piras. “You usually have a three-course meal then, with possibly a salad and homemade pasta and Pecorino cheese. People often come home from work to have lunch with their families. It’s a rich meal, so you might slip into a food coma and take a short nap after. Many people don’t need to go back to the office after lunch. My father, for instance, would come home for lunch and then go back to the office just three days a week for a few hours.”

Dinner is the lightest meal of the day, typically served late in the evening, while breakfast is served early and is often quite sweet (otherwise sweets aren’t much of a thing in Sardinia). A common thread between all the foods here, Piras highlights, is simplicity. “Even when rich, it’s all very simple. You don’t see a ton of ingredients like you do in Italian-American food. And freshness is always key.”

A relaxed work day and no obsessing over career

When Piras left Sardinia several decades ago to travel and pursue entrepreneurial work, he was perceived by his community as somewhat radical.

“I had the dream job,” says Piras. “The type of steady job where you stay in for your whole career until you retire. People thought I was crazy to leave.” His was perhaps the classic Sardinian job, he says, where all your needs are met and you aren’t expected to work yourself to the point of burning out just to get ahead. Family comes first, and, as earlier noted, you’re probably checking out of the office after lunch a couple days a week.

Sardinian children playing at the beach.Sebastian Piras Photography

Buettner finds that this low-stress work approach to be imperative, particularly for men, when it comes to longevity. Men are traditionally the breadwinners in Sardinia, while women are managing the home, children, meals and finances — which is where stress and its accompanying health detriments can come into play.

“These people aren’t sitting in an office all day and then trying to get to the gym,” says Buettner. “They have a relaxed work life and generally, if you ask them their priorities, you will hear again and again that family is number one. And there’s no option for loneliness; they’re connected everyday, and rather than waking up thinking about how to advance in their career, they’re waking up thinking about how their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren are thriving.”

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