The Blue Zones: A Recipe for Brain Health and Longevity, Part 2: Sardinia, Italy
The 5 Blue Zone regions are known for having some of the healthiest and longest-lived people in the world. Although each location is geographically distant, they share common practices that add up to the perfect recipe for longevity and health. What do they have in common? Each community puts their own spin on certain lifestyle factors like diet, stress reduction, sense of purpose and connection, and physical activity.
National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner researched these longest-lived populations, and named the regions the Blue Zones. They have higher than average numbers of healthy centenarians with lower-than-average risk of chronic diseases (e.g. neurodegenerative, cardiovascular diseases, and cancers). Quite amazingly, people living in the Blue Zones have some of the lowest rates of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease compared to the rest of the world.
In part 2 of this article series, we travel to the Blue Zone region of Sardinia, Italy, to explore how we can enjoy better brain health and longer, happier lives by applying Sardinian behaviors and habits to our own lives.
Due to the remote nature of the island of Sardinia, the culture and lifestyle of its inhabitants has been preserved for thousands of years. Sardinians isolated themselves from the outside world in order to withstand centuries of foreign attempts to overtake the island. For this reason, they grew to distrust strangers and focus on their family and neighbors. The ability to maintain traditional practices of growing their own food, culture and lifestyle are considered the reason for Sardinia’s high rate of centenarians.
With their own twist on the Mediterranean dietary pattern, the traditional Sardinian diet is plant-based, with meat saved for Sundays and some special occasions. A large proportion of their diet is whole grains, and garden-grown vegetables, with dairy made from grass-fed sheep and goats that graze in the mountains. The dairy products here are especially high in omega-3 fats and account for most of the protein in the diet. Research suggests these sources of dairy improve insulin activity and supports healthy cognitive function.1
Cannonau wine, a distinctive part of the Sardinian diet, contains two to three times the amount of flavonoids as in other wines. High flavonoid intake is associated with better cardiovascular health and lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia. While Sardinians tend to get a lot of flavonoids from their local wine, they are also plentiful in their colorful fruits and vegetables.
Unlike the rest of the world where women generally outlive men, on the mountainous island of Sardinia, men are more likely to become centenarians. Here, living to 100 is ten times as likely as in North America. Have you ever heard the expression, “laughter is the best medicine?” On Sardinia, men especially are known for their biting, sardonic sense of humor – expressing their hardships in a clever and witty way. Laughing together regularly brings a sense of connection that is often more characteristic of female relationships in wealthier, modern societies, but clearly from Sardinia’s example, it helps reduce stress for everyone.
Sense of Purpose and Connection
Sardinians value family as their purpose in life. In addition, they value elders and the wisdom they draw from their experience. Grandparents are involved in childcare, financial help, motivating children to succeed, and perpetuating traditions. Adhering to this social value allows people to maintain a sense of purpose well into late life, and may even increase health and life-expectancy of children. These strong family values ensure everyone is cared for and feels a sense of belonging.
Traditionally, the men in Sardinia are shepherds, walking five or more miles each day. Like Ikaria, producing their own food and living in a mountainous region encourages physical activity that maintains strength and cardiovascular health without requiring high-intensity workouts at the gym. The hiking done by Sardinian shepherds in an hour is the equivalent of 120 minutes of brisk walking.
Take a Cue from Sardinians
Note at its core, the Sardinian diet is a Mediterranean dietary pattern, and is especially rich in nutrient-dense vegetables and whole grains. Their special twist comes in the form of pastured dairy that’s exceptionally high in omega-3 fats, and flavonoid-rich Cannonau wine. Daily work in the mountains of Sardinia provides plenty of heart- and brain-supportive physical activity. The purpose provided by caring for multiple generations of family and their sardonic sense of humor keep Sardinians healthy and sharp into old age.
To learn more about the Blue Zone regions, check out part 1 of this article series where we explore Ikaria, Greece.
- Nieddu, A.et al.Dietary Habits, Anthropometric Features and Daily Performance in Two Independent Long-Lived Populations from Nicoya peninsula (Costa Rica) and Ogliastra (Sardinia). Nutrients 12, (2020).