Health & Wellness

Want Great Longevity and Health? It Takes a Village

dt-amac-wordpress-sardinia-village-may-2015From – – by Dan Buettner

The secrets of the world’s longest-lived people include community, family, exercise and plenty of beans.

In a string of whitewashed villages in the mountains of the Italian island of Sardinia, there are 21 centenarians in a population of 10,000. Only about four in 10,000 Americans reach the 100-year mark. So what do the Sardinians know that our own diet-and-health obsessed country doesn’t?

In April, I visited this epicenter of longevity along with Michel Poulain, a Belgian demographer; Paulo Francalacci, an Italian evolutionary geneticist; and Gianni Pes, an Italian physician and medical researcher. For the past 11 years, we have been studying what we call “blue zones” around the world—places where people live the longest with the lowest rates of chronic disease.

When I first reported on this area a decade ago, scientists theorized that genes played a role in the extraordinary longevity of Sardinians. This enclave of 14 villages is home to one of the world’s most genetically homogenous populations, second only to that of Iceland.

Since then, the notion of a genetic advantage has been called into question. According to Dr. Pes, several studies have shown that the genetic markers of the centenarians—including markers associated with cardiovascular mortality, cancer and inflammation—don’t diverge significantly from those of the general population.

Based on the work we did in Sardinia and four other blue zones, a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota helped us to reverse-engineer a diet of the world’s healthiest populations. We gathered 155 dietary surveys from all five areas, covering the eating habits of the past century, and came up with a global average.

More than 65% of what people in the blue zones ate came from complex carbohydrates: sweet potatoes in Okinawa, Japan; wild greens in Ikaria, Greece; squash and corn in Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula. Their diet consists mainly of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and other carbohydrates. They eat meat but only small amounts, about five times a month, usually on celebratory occasions.
The cornerstone of every longevity diet in the world was the humble bean. One five-country study showed that beans were the only food that predicted a longer life—for each 20-gram serving (about two tablespoons) eaten a day, the chance of dying dropped by 8%. Fava beans in Sardinia, black beans in Costa Rica, lentils in Ikaria, soybeans in Okinawa. Seventh-Day Adventists, America’s longest-lived subculture, eat all kinds of beans, taking their cue from God’s injunction, in the book of Genesis, to eat the fruits of “seed-bearing plants.”

Dollar for dollar, most beans deliver more protein than beef. More important, beans’ high fiber content serves as a gut compost of sorts, enabling healthy bacteria to thrive.

The centenarians and others we met in Sardinia showed us, though, that even the healthiest diet isn’t enough by itself to promote long life. The true longevity recipe transcends food to encompass a web of social and cultural factors.

On my recent visit to Sardinia, I spent an afternoon in the village of Villagrande with a baking circle of sorts: five women, including a grandmother, daughter and granddaughter, who get together every few weeks to bake traditional sourdough bread, leavened with lactobacillus cultures and yeast.

I was first drawn to them because of the bread. Dr. Pes had published a study showing that Sardinian sourdough bread actually lowers a meal’s glycemic load. (Most bread metabolizes almost immediately into sugar, spiking insulin levels.)

After spending a couple of hours with these women, I realized that the bread was only one ingredient in a larger group of benefits that the bread-making occasioned. The women also had to chop wood and stoke the oven. They had to knead the dough for 45 minutes (more exercise than going to the gym).

Life in these villages is very social. People meet on the street daily and savor each other’s company. They count on one another. If someone gets sick, a neighbor is right there. If a shepherd loses his flock, other shepherds rally round with donated sheep to rebuild the flock.

In the nearby hamlet of Mores, I met 94-year old Salvatore Pinna and three of his friends, whose ages ranged from 88 to 90. They wore woolen newsboy caps and the kind of rugged tweed jacket fashionable in both sheep pastures and the village square. They get together every morning for coffee, again in the afternoon to play dominoes and at night to drink homemade Cannonau wine. Two of them were living alone, but as one told me, “We’re never alone.”

When it comes to longevity, the long-standing support of a community is significant. In the U.S., you’re likely to die eight years earlier if you’re lonely, compared with people who have strong social networks. In Sardinia, “One hand washes the other, and they both wash the face,” as Mr. Pinna told me, summing up the social symbiosis.

He and his friends serve as repositories of agricultural wisdom, which they routinely share by advising local vintners how to cope with temperamental weather and various insect pests. They are pillars of the local economy and are prized for it.

A fanatic zeal for family has also survived here. Neither work, hobbies, friends nor a sports team would ever divert serious attention away from a spouse or children. In turn, parents and grandparents move serenely into old age, secure in the knowledge that their children will care for them. There are no retirement homes here.

What we found in Sardinia is similar in other blue zones. None of the spry centenarians I’ve met over the years said to themselves at age 50, “I’m going get on that longevity diet and live another 50 years!” None of them bought a treadmill, joined a gym or answered a late-night ad for a supplement.

Instead, they lived in cultures that made the right decisions for them. They lived in places where fresh vegetables were cheap and accessible. Their kitchens were set up so that making healthy food was quick and easy. Almost every trip to the store, a friend’s house, work or school occasioned a walk. Their houses didn’t have mechanized conveniences to do house work, kitchen work or yard work; they did it by hand.

People in the blue zones were nudged into physical activity every 20 minutes, my team estimated. This activity not only burned 500 to 1,000 calories a day; it also kept their metabolisms humming at a higher rate.

Americans spend about $110 billion a year on diets, exercise programs and supplements, but self-discipline is a muscle that fatigues. Research shows that such short-term efforts fail for almost everyone in less than three years. By contrast, successful strategies to avoid disease and yield longevity require decades of adherence—or entire lifetimes

For enduring gains in health in the U.S., we should shift our tactics away from trying to change individual behavior to optimizing our surroundings. We should make healthy choices not only easy, but also sometimes unavoidable—so that longevity “just happens” to Americans.

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5 years ago

Sounds good to me! Is there anyplace in the U.S that approximates that lifestyle? or am I dreaming? Co-op organic gardening is wholesome and good, but what about the community perks? The healthy rural co-operative housing that I’ve looked at is unaffordable for many retired people. Also, though I am a Sr. I think that real community would involve all ages both the very young and very old. I’ve thought about some kind of permanent yurt structures that can be expanded and built relatively cheaply, but what about the land? Is it owned co-operatively? What are the pros and cons? Didn’t the Israelis do something like this with farming lifestyles? If anyone is interested, perhaps a discussion thread could be started to explore the possibilities. I’m willing.

5 years ago

When you travel to many of the small villages in Italy, not the major cities, you’ll find many, if not all, of them live much in the same way as those described in this article. Their diets are very similar and levels of activity are consistent with what is described in the article. That is a function of economic necessity as much as lifestyle choice. With things like meat, fruits and vegetables grown outside the region and any sort of processed foods are very expensive and thus eaten only occasionally. The result is it’s not unusual to see people in their 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s walking around everywhere (cars are very expensive to buy, gasoline costs $8 to $9 a gallon) and being alert and healthy. People don’t sit around and watch TV all day. Electricity rates are very high in Europe (3 times are current rates), so people in these small villages simply can’t afford more than an hour or two at night, if that. Laptop computers, which draw less energy than a typical European TV, are how they keep up with what’s going on in the world. They mostly socialize amongst themselves and do their daily chores, which helps keep them mentally alert and physically fit.

Can we mimic their diets here? Absolutely. It’s easy to do and you’ll find that it costs you less. No one is forcing you to drink soda, eat foods high in sugar, fat and salt. A typical Italian breakfast in these villages is some bread and a glass of wine. Orange juice, which has a high sugar content, and eggs, which are expensive if you don’t have your own chickens, are not served for breakfast. No one is forcing you to eat portion sizes that are double what they eat in the villages documented in this article. No one is stopping you from being more physically active, as long as you are healthy enough to do it. It’s a matter of personal choice.

5 years ago
Reply to  PaulE

We spend literally billions annually on weight loss and magic dietary supplements yet reasonable eating remains elusive for millions. One encounters very large people at farm markets or whole foods stores. Still, your points about sensible diet seem relatively attainable compared to the social connectivity problem we have. The documentary about the Italians in America included a segment on the PA town of Roseto. In 1964 it was noted that their death rates were well below average, so it was decided to study them. Movies from that time show very few thin people but no whales either. If I recall correctly, their diet was rather heavy in meat, cheese etc. . These were lasagna, sausage and meatball eaters. The thing about the place in 64 was the remarkable level of connectedness. Everyone knew their neighbors and sat out on the porch or talked between the yards. Fast forward fifty years and their death rates are now at the median. What changed? The kids moved away and now fly in for a rushed thanksgiving. Old people face nursing homes. I can’t help but think that many of us reading about Sardinia or Okinawa, to name two of the so called blue zones, brush past the social factors in a mad dash towards some magic flour or root or wine that will confer health. I’m not finger pointing. I do it too.

5 years ago
Reply to  DA

Yes, it seems most people just skim through articles like this to just get to the “magic food or drink” that is supposed to be a cure-all. All while still consuming all the soda, high fat, high salt processed junk. Completely lost is the cultural distinctions that are as important, if not more so, than the foods and drink mentioned.

Just an FYI DA. You can’t compare how Italians lived here, even 50 years ago in some small town in PA, to the way a lot of the small villages in Italy still live today. Now if you compared American small towns of the 1880’s to 1900’s to small Italian villages in the southern part of the country today, you would have a pretty good apples to apples comparison. I spent a lot of time in some of those small, mountain villages and it’s like going back in time a 100 years in almost all ways.

The stereotype of the “typical Italian diet of pasta, pasta, pasta with meatballs, sausage or chicken for most meals” is an American creation. Most of those foods people in PA were shown eating in 1964 would have been both considered luxury items and out of reach, money wise, for most Italians back in Italian small towns at the time. Even today, most Italians in the small villages eat pasta only once or twice a week. Their diets are instead usually centered around fresh fruits, vegetables and bread. Chicken and fish constitute their primary animal protein. Red meat is something they have maybe once a month or on a special holiday.

The cities over there are different. They’re just like us. So there is no distinction in mortality rates with ours. I agree if you. Were you to look at that PA town today, those people, who have all been fully Americanized, from a dietary perspective, would have the same mortality rates as we do.

5 years ago

I am certain that the food they eat are organic. Here in the U.S. We cannot trust the foods,GMO’s herbicides, pesticides, antibiotics, lack of good soil minerals etc have occurred. The implementation of drugs by the big Pharma diet soda and sugar all cause more disease in our country. We all need to recognize these facts and take action Now

Anthony P. Di Perna
5 years ago
Reply to  Tim

For me, the stress-free lives they lead is the major factor in their longevity. Diet and avoidance of a sedentary
life-style are important, too, but knowing you are part of a community with a common heritage and common values is
comforting. Those ingredients are hard to find in “advanced” societies.

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