How to Live to 100: Lessons From Italy

Christopher Tucci, RN
Live to be 100

We all want to live a long, healthy and happy life.  But how?  What’s the secret?  Although many are still searching for the Fountain of Youth, Italians have seemingly found it!  

Around the world, women outlive men in almost every society. In the United States, the life expectancy of a male is 76 while females live to 81 on average. One of the very few areas where men live longer than anywhere else in the world is the mountains of Sardinia.  

Sardinia

Sardinia (or Sardegna in Italian) is an Italian island in the Mediterranean, most notable for its beautiful coastline and pristine waters. However, more importantly, the men there are not only outliving women, but many are living to 100. Per capita, Sardinia has nearly 10 times more people 100 years of age or older than the United States.  

Nature or nurture

Do men from Sardinia have better genetics that promote a longer life?  Many believe having a parent or grandparent who lived into their 90’s or even 100 years old predicts how long you may live. However, scientists have proven genetics only accounts for about 20 percent of life expectancy. The remaining 80 percent is actually based on things within your control.  

Countless studies have shown smoking, exposure to toxins, obesity, poor diet and a lack of physical activity cut years from one’s life. Instead, Sardinian men have adopted a lifestyle that promotes good health and longevity.

The Sardinian lifestyle

The secret to the longevity in the men of Sardinia can be attributed to their lifestyle habits.

  • Daily activity is an essential aspect of life in Sardinia.  It is common to walk a couple miles a day doing common errands and tasks.  Many men walk up steep, mountainous, rocky terrain, working as goat shepherds throughout the pastures, often surpassing six miles a day.  Due to the terrain, walking up and down many steps is common.   
  • Those who have limited mobility remain active by tending the gardens, cleaning, cooking and maintaining the home.  
  • Sardinians, like most Italians, plant and tend an extensive backyard garden which provides fresh produce for daily consumption. They enjoy their food but eat in moderation and avoid overeating.  
  • Home grown beans, legumes, fruits and vegetables are consumed each day. Whole-grains is another major component of diet, with barley consisting of about 50 percent of one’s intake.
  • Unlike other cultures, meats are not considered an essential staple of every meal, but rather consumed in moderation and reserved for special occasions.  
  • Olive oil is a key component of the Mediterranean and Sardinian diets.  Extra virgin olive oil has been shown to help lower heart disease and cancer risk, decrease blood pressure, blood glucose and insulin levels, and reduce inflammation.
  • Sardinians eat very minimal refined sugars, commonly known as high fructose corn syrup or table sugar.  Sugar has been found to increase the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
  • Despite living on an island in the Mediterranean, due to the high, mountainous elevation, coastal based seafoods are uncommon. Contrary to the typical Mediterranean diet, Sardinians do not consume much fish.  Living off the land, grass fed goat and sheep milks and cheeses are components of the Sardinian diet.  These dairy sources protect against inflammatory diseases, Alzheimer’s and heart diseases and some cancers thanks to their high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
  • The region is known for a specific type of wine, called Cannonau. This wine has been touted as having anti-inflammatory benefits with very high levels of antioxidants, anthocyanins, flavonoids and polyphenols, that could help prevent against heart disease, dementia and cancer.  Cannonau wine is made with grenache grapes, producing a tasting profile of strawberry, black cherry, raspberry, anise, tobacco, citrus rind and cinnamon with medium oak aging.  Because of the health benefits, some may think more is better, but it is important to limit imbibing to moderate wine consumption and not over indulge.  

Benefit of community

Mental/emotional health and well-being along with community are major parts of the culture in Sardinia.  Community and family are valued above all else.  Work, success and money all take a backseat to family.  Despite a strong work ethic, men enjoy a very relaxed work-life balance with little stress.  They simply love what they do and continue working as long as possible.  

Retirement at 65 years old is an incoherent thought to a man from Sardinia. Sardinian men also enjoy a playful sense of humor, laugh regularly, and overall have an elevated mood.  Work-life balance, value of family and spiritual connection, all contribute to improved psychological health, such as lower rates of stress, suicide and depression.   

Respect for elders

Another strong tenet of Sardinians is the importance of the elderly. Elders are valued, promoted and celebrated as possessing the most wisdom. As a praised member of the family, elders are not placed in nursing homes or rehabilitation centers but rather actively participate in communal life, often living with multi-generations under the same roof.  Elders remain active, working and contributing to the family and community by tending the garden, cleaning or cooking.

All agree: There is no magic pill for longevity.  But it appears that the culture and lifestyle of Sardinian men certainly promote good health and well-being. These healthy habits could be adopted to reduce the risk of disease and help us live longer and happier lives.

For more tips on how to be healthy as you age, visit the Aging section of our Lifespan Living health and wellness blog.

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