The Healthy Italian: Italians and Longevity

Gli italiani più vecchi sono in Sardegna in un villaggio piccolo tra le montagne della Barbagia, nella provincia Ogliastra. Ci sono sette centenari su una popolazione di 2.500 cittadini. In paragone, negli stati uniti, c’è solo un centenario per ogni 5.000 persone. Questi Sardi hanno una vita rurale. Ancora vivono come cacciatori-contadini con minimi cambi nel loro stile di vita da mille anni.  L’autore spiega che questi Sardi vivono nella terra e hanno una vita semplice e agricola. Allevano gli animali e mangiano una dieta piena di verdura, frutta, e la farina integrale. Questi Sardi hanno una grande devozione per la loro famiglia, specialmente gli anziani. Gli scientisti dicono che questi centenari non hanno una predisposizione genetica per la loro longevità; invece, il loro stile di vita può essere quello che porta la loro vita ad essere lunghissima. 

Blue Zones are five geographical areas of the world where exceptional longevity exists. The non-scientific term was coined by Dan Buettner based on the work of demographic researchers Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain.

This month’s topic: The Sardinian Blue Zone

The longest-living Italians appear to be in the mountainous region of Barbagia, in the district of Ogliastra, with seven centenarians out of a population of 2,500 people. In comparison, the ratio for centenarians in the U.S. is about one per 5,000. Largely hunter-gatherers and shepherds with very little change in their lifestyle over thousands of years, these Sardinians, due to their self-imposed isolation, maintained their genetic predispositions, delayed socio-economic development and preserved their traditional social values. Though lacking written laws, they exhibit strong social cohesiveness and evince an intense dedication to family and community and respect for elders. We now know their secrets to a longer life:

1. The Environment. With the rugged landscape not suitable to farming, raising animals was the natural work for most men, and though not strenuous or stressful, the shepherds walk 5-14 miles per day while tending to their cows, sheep and goats. They have a strong work ethic: love their work, take the responsibility to their families seriously and enjoy the good things in life. “Mostly I’ve always tried to remember that when you get good things from life, enjoy them, because they won’t be there forever,” says 103-year-old Giovanni Sannai. In early morning, the men go to work with their animals in the clean mountain air with beautiful views, come in to rest and socialize with their male friends in the afternoon, eat dinner, and then go back to work until dark. The men seem to have a sardonic sense of humor and a temperament that sheds stress. In contrast, the women stay in the home cooking, taking care of the children, the finances and the worries. 

2. Lifestyle. La Famiglia is the Sardinian’s purpose in life. They put family first and possess a love and reverence for their elders. No long-term facilities for elders exist there like here in the U.S. Centenarians stay with their families until they pass, helping to encourage the perpetuation of old traditions and their children and grandchildren to succeed in life. It is about loving and being loved which adds up to better physical and mental health and a longer life for all because each family member is cared for. 

3. The Food. Whole grain breads and pastas are a staple in the Sardinian diet as are many vegetables and beans, mastic oil (high in Omega 3s) from the berries of the Pistacia Lentiscus tree and homemade red wine, made from Cannonau grapes, with two to three times the flavonoids than other wines. Meat is a luxury only eaten once a week at most. Cheese from sheep and goat’s milk, which packs a nutritional punch, are their main sources of protein. All these foods may protect Sardinians from the typical diseases of aging and cancer with their antibacterial and antimutagenic properties.

Although there is ongoing genetic research on longevity, there is still a question as to whether or not Sardinians have a “longevity gene.” Gianni Pes, the Sardinian scientist whose early research helped delineate the Blue Zones, is not convinced that there is such a thing. He suggests that factors such as environment and diet may play a bigger role than genetics.

Tip of the Month: Set up your environment, lifestyle and food like a Sardinian 

centenarian to live a longer life! 

Start with one thing you can do:

Walk four miles a day. Find hills and/or steps to climb. Find a hiking trail. Add more vegetables to your diet or consume less meat. Start weekly family Sunday dinners, now via Zoom and later, together!

Phil Corio from Albuquerque, NM who could be the oldest Italian American man in the U.S., reportedly survived COVID-19 at the age of 108. When his granddaughter asked him what his secret to longevity was, Phil answered, “No smoking and keep breathing!”

Please send your questions about nutrition, exercise or mindfulness to Diana at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. If I don’t know the answer, I will find it.

Diana Lucarino-Diekmann, has been working in the field of Health and Fitness since 1980 helping others achieve optimal health and happiness. She has a BA in Exercise Physiology as well as Pilates and Yoga certifications and an extensive knowledge of nutrition and disease. Having taught almost every type of exercise class, she now specializes in Yoga, Pilates, meditation, and mindfulness, not only in exercise but also in life.

The contents of “The Healthy Italian” are for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or your personal health.