A cent’anni! May you live to 100 years! That’s a toast you hear throughout Italy, along with salute! and cin-cin! In Sardinian dialect, it’s A Kent’Annos! and they honestly mean it. Sardinia, an island in the Mediterranean Sea, has more centenarians per capita than anywhere else in the world except Okinawa, Japan. In most populations, women outlive men, but it’s roughly equal here. About a third of them are in perfect mental and physical health. I’ve been a dietitian for umpteen years and I hoped to learn the Sardinian secret to a long life and about their Mediterranean Diet.
We began our trip in Cagliari, on the southern tip of the island, and drove to Cala Gonone, a fishing and beach town about halfway up the eastern side of the island. The narrow road zig-zagged for hours through rugged mountains and isolated villages. Without warning, a mountain crossroad was blocked by the police. Drivers were told to pull over and park on the edge of the road, with a frighteningly steep drop-off. We had stumbled upon the route for the Giro d’Italia and cyclists would be whizzing by! Villagers lined the country road, waiting and watching. Aha! This was my chance to ask locals about the secret to a long life! In my bumbling Italian I interviewed a bunch of people and here’s what they said:
-That’s my aunt over there, she’s 109. She’s still strong and smart, probably because she walks all the time.
-An egg every day. My great-grandmother says eggs represent life.
-It’s only genetics. Either you have it or you don’t.
-Our older people have eaten healthy food all their lives. Homemade food from the kitchen, not processed. The old ladies still make pasta, bread, stew.
-Fresh air and being outside. The men walk every day, even now, and they work in their gardens.
-Our Cannonau wine. (That grape is said to have the highest levels of polyphenols of any wine, antioxidants that can protect from cardiovascular disease.)
-Pecorino Sardo (sheep milk’s cheese from Sardinia) is health-promoting because it has a unique strain of bacteria.
-Family ties are the reason. Having a sense of purpose taking care of the bambini and cooking, and having family take care of you, too.
-It’s not just people who are 100 who are healthy. Look at me! I’m 82!
In the A Kent’Annos studies at University of Sassari in Sardinia, researchers believe it’s largely genetics. Villages were historically wary of invaders and intermarriage concentrated the gene pool. They also found that most 100 year olds are well-balanced optimists with good social and family networks and a strong sense of identity, and nearly all appear to have a diet rich in antioxidants.
I couldn’t find a clear answer about longevity, nor could I figure out what the Mediterranean Diet looks like here. Traditionally, Sardinians have two different cuisines: people along the coast eat fish-based diets but those in the vast interior have meat-based diets (sheep, horse, beef). All seem to eat a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables.
So, what’s the Sardinian secret? What have I learned that I can apply to my own life and as a dietitian? Genetics plays a big part, and as the man said, either you have it or you don’t. But nearly everything else is doable. I can eat good food that I’ve cooked at home. I can savor the loving relationships with my family and the sense of belonging that gives me. I can eat cheese. And at the table I can raise a glass of wine with friends and family and say A cent’anni!