What we can learn from Sardinian Centenarians
In a small town in Southern Sardinia lives a ‘local legend‘ named Francesco Paba.
Each day, Francesco makes his way down steep cobblestone steps and enters a bar where he enjoys a glass of wine and a laugh with whichever member of his community he happens to cross paths with.
Once he’s had his fill, he climbs his way back home or finds another path to continue his stroll.
He’s known for his big smile, his dapper attire, and his zest for life.
He also happens to be 98 years old.
That’ll make me think twice about complaining the next time I’m faced with a steep hill!
I can’t help but feel inspired when I meet or hear about people who have made it well into old age and are quite frankly killin’ it.
People who age with grace, who embrace each stage of life for its unique gifts and challenges. Those who never stop smiling, who remain committed to pushing their minds and bodies to continue to allow them to enjoy this world.
So when I came across Francesco while watching the documentary, Down to Earth, I was immediately captivated by his energy and joy for life.
But his story also raises some interesting questions about how we view aging.
Do you fear old age?
Do you fear your youth escaping you? Do you fear that it will inevitably be replaced by the diseases and burdens of old age? Do you fear death? Or that you may have regrets about how you’ve lived?
Many of us try to push the thoughts out of our heads the minute they come up, refusing to accept the fact until we’re forced to face it.
Francesco shows us through the way he lives that there is a simple beauty that can come with reaching old age in good health.
They key, of course, is good health.
Sardinia is considered one of the world’s “Blue Zones“–a term used to refer to any area with extraordinarily long-living populations. Five total have been identified, including: Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, Calif.; and Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica.
In other words, Sardinia is a particularly good use case to look at in assessing the question, how can we reach old age in good health and in good spirits, like Francesco?
When it comes to mindset on aging, people tend to fall into two main categories:
- Those of us who fear aging because we don’t believe that late life will be worth living. That our best years will have passed us by, and what’s the point to living to an old age if we don’t have health or anything joyful to look forward to?
- Those of us who are fascinated by the prospect of human longevity and are always seeking out what actions we can take to help get us there.
Whichever category you see yourself fitting into, we can all learn something from Blue Zones about what it takes to live a long and happy life. We can learn from what people like Francesco embody.
The secret to a long and happy life is not one thing — it’s many.
The centenarians of Sardinia that have been researched and studied show us that multiple factors contribute to reaching 100.
- Eating well – Sardinians are known for the quality of their local foods, but also for how the exemplify the notion of ‘everything in moderation’. No one food group is ‘the enemy’ and should therefore be removed completely from your diet. They’re not afraid of carbs and they’ll enjoy small quantities of sugar without shame. Eating well is part of living well, and traditions surrounding food are part of the culture.
- Physical activity – It should come as no shock that Francesco’s daily walks up and down the steep hills of his neighborhood contribute to the fact that for a 98 year old, he is in terrific shape. He stands with great posture, and his joints still allow him to endure a great amount of daily activity. He doesn’t believe himself too old to do so, and rather gets a lot of enjoyment out of it. With a healthy, active body that allows him to spend time out in the world, it’s much easier for him to be in good spirits and see the beauty of the world he still gets to live in.
- Social interaction that keeps the mind engaged and challenged and that creates a sense of value and importance – Another key component to long-term health is consistent interaction across generations. Interacting with younger generations keeps individuals such as Francesco engaged mentally. Without this engagement and without some way to challenge the mind, elderly people’s health can deteriorate quick. Also, in a collectivist society where cultures emphasize the needs and goals of the group as a whole over the needs and desires of each individual, relationships with other members of the group and the interconnectedness between people play a central role in each person’s identity–and their well being in old age. Old people continue to have an important place in society, which from a mental health standpoint continues to give them a reason to live–an excitement to live and to continue to experience life.
- Finding beauty in the mundane — Francesco is delighted by his daily walks (passeggio) and the bliss of a glass of good Italian wine. He’s fallen in love with his simple routines. So too do many Sardinians, including the tradition of making a simple but delicious meal together with family, and enjoying it together.
- Clarity on what’s truly important in life — When interviewed at the local bar, Francesco’s eyes welled up with tears as he shared that his wife had passed away not too long ago. Family is the most important thing, he said. Just from his demeanor while talking about it, you could tell that he wholeheartedly believed in what he was saying and has lived his life placing his energy and love with his family. You could also see how much positivity and meaning family has given him in life. That clarity is what enables him to focus on what’s important and not allow anything else to stress him out.
What I find to be an especially fascinating and useful takeaway from the lives of Sardinian Centenarians is that a long and happy life is more than just eating well and exercising. Those are of course huge factors, but the list is not limited to just one key to success or “single” secret. Mental health, social interaction, and a healthy mindset, also play a huge role – a fact I believe our society often overlooks.
These “secrets” are not groundbreaking ideas. They’re all the principles and values we know are good for us yet seem to have such a difficult time implementing consistently in our own lives.
It’s difficult to say we’re satisfied with less when everyone around us seems to keep pursuing more.
It’s difficult to live stress free when we often view our worth in large part by what we accomplish professionally.
It’s seemingly difficult to find communities who will live in a truly collectivist manner if it means going against the entire individualist norm of our country. We isolate ourselves for our goals. We sacrifice our emotional well being to get ahead in life and be successful.
We sacrifice our health for the sake of convenience in the name of productivity.
We completely miss the point of all the ways modern life is supposed to improve our lives, not over-complicate them to the point where we have to struggle to recognize that it’s the simple actions and pleasures that have successfully allowed people like Francesco to live well into his 90s with much more of a spring in his step than many 20 year old’s I know.
But Francesco and other Blue Zone residents give us hope that it doesn’t have to be this way. That the key to a long and healthy life may be a balance of a number of things, but that none of them are complicated ‘secrets.’ It’s just a matter of taking what their lives teach us and applying it little by little to our own lives over the course of many years.