else. They call them Blue Zones. Audi Magazine travels to one of these â the Italian island of. Sardinia â to meet the Melis family, nine brothers and sisters with a ...
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R E D WI NE FA M I L Y T I E S Z E RO S TR E S S A N I S L A ND L I F E S T YL E L O T S OF T OM AT OE S G OAT ’ S C H E E SE R E L I G I O U S FA I T H H A R D WOR K F AV O U R A B L E G E N E S
WH AT ’ S T H E S E C R E T O F L ON G EVI T Y ?
WRITER Johanna Derry PHOTOGRAPHER Rama Knight
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Scientists have identified at least five places in the world where people live longer than anywhere else. They call them Blue Zones. Audi Magazine travels to one of these – the Italian island of Sardinia – to meet the Melis family, nine brothers and sisters with a combined age of 836. If they don’t know the secret to a long life, no one does
It’s midnight in Barbagia. Around a farm table filled with empty plates and full stomachs, my hosts Franca and Massimiliano are plying me and other guests at their agriturismo with wine while we discuss one of mankind’s greatest mysteries: how to live for ever. This isn’t a random alcohol-induced conversation because the secret of eternal, or at least a long, life may be found on the Italian island of Sardinia. Overlapping the provinces of Nuoro and Ogliastra, Barbagia is Sardinia’s mountain country – a country full of old men, a longevity hotspot, hidden in a natural fortress of soaring coastal cliffs and sheer-sided mountains. People born and living here are ten times more likely to see their 100th birthday than the rest of us. Demographers call it a Blue Zone, and researchers have found that a combination of good genes and a healthy lifestyle enable many people here to notch up the century. But I want to pinpoint the absolute key to longevity, and every Sardinian has their own pet theory. ‘There’s a man in the nearest village to us who’s 104,’ Massimiliano announces to the table. ‘All his life he’s never drunk water, only wine. That’s how he’s lived to be so old.’ The table murmurs in vague agreement. It’s as good a theory as any, and Massimiliano isn’t the only one who holds it. ‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Take 90-year-old Adolfo Melis, for example…’ I’d met Adolfo a couple of days earlier in a village called Perdasdefogu, perched precariously in the mountains. He and his eight siblings hold the Guinness World Record for being
the oldest group of brothers and sisters still living. With a verified combined age of almost 836 years, I guessed they’d have a view on how to live a long life, so we tracked them down to pick their brains. Adolfo, who is 91 in a few months, and his 88-year-old brother Vitalio have met for a drink in Bar Biliardi on Perdasdefogu’s main street every day since it opened in 1958. They’re short, swarthy old men who don’t look a day over 60. They’re in fine form when I arrive, trading stories and gesturing enthusiastically to each other under a large black-and-white family photograph taken of them when they were children. Since their family claimed the world record, they’ve enjoyed a lot of attention. ‘All the world wants to know our secret,’ says Adolfo. ‘All I can say is that we’re still alive, so what we do must work.’ I lean in to find out the answer. ‘Always have a glass of wine at lunch,’ he declares. This is a life tip I can manage, and as it turns out, there’s something in the local wine – Cannonau – which could help you live longer. Although it’s not a magic potion, red wine is high in polyphenols, naturally occurring chemical compounds which
Exercise is thought to be a key to longevity for the people living in the mountainous region of eastern Sardinia, where residents work the land and herd sheep. A diet of pasta and locally grown vegetables, and a community structure that respects and cherishes it elders makes this a zone for living long and well
VITALIO MELIS, 88 BORN FEBRUARY 6, 1926 ‘I AM ALWAYS WORKING HARD IN MY GARDEN’
ADOLFO MELIS, 90 BORN OCTOBER 20, 1923 ‘ALWAYS HAVE A GLASS OF WINE AT LUNCH’
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CASU AGEDU, GOAT’S CHEESE ‘THIS IS BETTER THAN VIAGRA! THIS WILL GIVE YOU A LONG LIFE’
researchers have found can help to reduce mortality in older adults by up to 30 per cent. But is long life guaranteed by a glass of wine at lunch every day? I’m not so sure. After all, the Melis siblings have the advantage of good genes – their father lived to 87 – and growing up in the mountains kept them fit. Vitalio worked as a postman for many years, going from village to village on foot, and Adolfo worked on his family’s land, then at the local military base after returning from the Second World War. ‘We’re still working,’ says Vitalio. ‘If I feel tired when I’m working in my garden, I’ll sit in the shade, but even then I’m thinking about what needs to be done. There’s a group of young people who work in the garden next to me and can’t believe how old I am. They asked me how I do it and I told them not to be afraid of the sun. If it’s in your face, turn your back on it and keep working.’ And let’s not forget that luck has also played a part. Vitalio dodged military conscription because his brothers were already signed up, and Adolfo was a tail gunner in the air force – not the safest of jobs if you want to be the guest of honour at your 100th birthday party. ‘But he never hit anything,’ Vitalio teases. ‘He was the one who lost us the war.’ Though they lived through the privations of the Great Depression in the 1930s and major world conflict, these guys were born into a kind of generational sweet spot, hardy survivors who then reaped all the medical and welfare benefits of a modernised world, without giving up their traditional ways, such as taking your time, sitting with friends and stopping to chat in the street. My host Massimiliano is keen to know more about the Melis family. He savours a long drag on his cigarette and asks: ‘Do they smoke?’ Looking at the ashtray in front of him, it’s plain that this chain smoker in his forties is going to be disappointed with my answer. ‘No,’ I reply. ‘No smoking. They don’t really drink coffee either.’ He looks at the cigarette in his hand, momentarily sad to lose the potential justification for not giving up his favourite vice, shrugs, then inhales again.
As well as a healthy diet, the Mediterranean climate and stress-free way of life improves the chances of reaching 100. The Melis family has a strong bond and enjoys spending time with each other. Above is Adolfo chatting with his nephew (left)
In Perdasdefogu’s town square groups of old men gather to passar il tempo together. Instead of translating this as ‘passing the time’, my interpreter Fiorenza calls it ‘cheering up’. ‘Why?’ I ask. ‘Because being together makes you happy.’ So in the piazza, I ‘cheer up’ with the smooth-skinned, 70-something Ennio Cabizza. What’s his theory on how to live a long life? ‘Ah!’ he smiles sagely before pronouncing: ‘Life is an uphill struggle. But take it slowly and it becomes a walk.’ It’s the perfect distillation of the Sardinian approach, and a surefire way to avoid a stress-related premature demise. In fact, there’s only one time when I see anyone moving with any kind of pace. At lunchtime, Vitalio legs it from the bar down the road to get home to eat, jogging with the ease of a 50-year-old. All those years of delivering letters on foot clearly paid off. ‘It’s the fermentation!’ exclaims our hostess, Franca, to the table. She’s a firm believer in the power of food, particularly goat’s cheese, to extend your life. She swears by a particular goat’s cheese called Casu Agedu, and to make her point she dishes out dollops of it on pieces of traditional Sardinian pistoccu bread for us to try. ‘This is better than Viagra!’ she says. ‘This will give you a long life.’ Then she reveals that the ferment is made from the milk-filled stomach of a freshly killed baby goat. The stomach is tied up and fermented to make rennet. It all seems a bit of a witchcrafty way to extend your life expectancy to me. But it’s a very moreish cheese, so if longevity is a side effect, then I’m happy to go along with it.
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WHERE TO LIVE FOR EVER After noting the high number of very old people living in the Sardinian village of Villagrande, Belgian demographer Dr Michel Poulain and Sardinian biologist Professor Luca Deiana began a project looking into longevity. They proved that around 10 times more people in the mountains of Sardinia live to be 100 than anywhere else. They called this longevity hotspot a Blue Zone. Researchers have since identified four further Blue Zones: the Japanese region of Okinawa in the Pacific, the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, the island of Ikaria in Greece, and a Seventh-Day Adventist community in Loma Linda, California. The genetic heritage of men in Sardinia’s Blue Zone is particularly notable. They carry the M26 gene, which is passed from father to son. Where the ratio of people aged over 100 is usually four women to every one man, in
LOMA LINDA, CALIFORNIA, USA
this area, this genetic quirk means it’s one to one. Dr Luisa Salaris, a statistician from the University of Cagliari who worked on the research, explains: ‘Their geographical isolation meant there was less DNA mixing, which led to a genetic peculiarity for a tendency towards long life.’ But there’s still hope for the rest of us. ‘Genetics counts only for about 25 per cent,’ says Dr Salaris. ‘And then it depends on what you do with those genes. They’re a predisposition not a determination. But people who don’t have great genes still have a chance to improve their life expectancy.’ By taking what people living in Blue Zones around the world have in common and applying them to your life, Dr Salaris believes it’s possible to improve your chances, not just of living longer, but also of living with greater health and wellbeing.
NICOYA PENINSULA, COSTA RICA SARDINIA, ITALY
IN THE ZONE Lucky Blue Zoners are 10 times more likely to reach 100. From California in the US to Okinawa in Japan, the answers lie in genes, healthy diet and lifestyle and community structure – there’s even a link to volcanic soils which scientists are still yet to fathom
Mountain provinces of Ogliastra and Nuoro Villagrande Perdasdefogu, home to the Melis Cagliari, capital
HOW TO LIVE FOR EVER Here’s what the researchers believe are the keys to a longer, healthier life Move naturally. People in Blue Zones aren’t sedentary but live in ways which keep them on the move all the time. Local people in the Barbagian mountains, for example, traditionally had to walk a few miles to their fields and back every day. Eat wisely. Blue Zoners eat very little red meat and have a diet rich in vegetables and beans. A small glass of red wine has been found to help protect the heart and slow down the ageing process. Sardinian wine is said to have high levels of polyphenols, which act as antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. Belong. A sense of community and strong family bonds are recurring themes in Blue Zones. Dr Chiara Fastame and Professor Maria Pietronilla Penna of the University of Cagliari, along with Dr Paul Hitchcott from Southampton Solent University, found that greater psychological wellbeing contributes to longevity. Fastame explains: ‘Sardinian elders enjoy a good quality of life because of their social and physical activity. In the little villages of Barbagia and Ogliastra, elders are considered resources for their community and their social role is preserved, in a way that’s comparable with Japan.’ Have a positive outlook. For the Melis family this is provided by practising a religious faith, which gives them a sense of being part of something greater and meaningful. ‘When you’re involved in something that’s bigger than you, you have a reason to live another year, because you make plans that you want to see through,’ says Dr Salaris.
Antonino Melis, the fourth child of Francesco and Eleonora Melis, helped to eradicate malaria from Sardinia in the late 1940s. Interestingly, a gene present in Blue Zones populations is linked to greater resistance to Malaria and is thought to play a positive role in longevity
ANTONINO MELIS, 95 BORN MAY 5, 1919 ‘ASK GOD – HE’S IN CHARGE’
Sheep and goat’s milk and cheese are a key part of the Sardinian diet, along with lots of beans and locally grown vegetables. Meat, and surprisingly for an island, seafood, are only eaten about once or twice a week. Instead there’s maccarones al porcini, delicious long tubes of pasta with a porcini mushroom sauce; culingionis, a light and fresh ravioli stuffed with potato, sheep’s cheese and mint usually served in a tomato sauce; savoury cauliflower fritters; pecorino cheese… the list goes on. I understood why Vitalio ran home for his lunch, but the contents of his diet also explains how he’s still able to. With so many foods high in calcium, Omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants, it’s a diet built for longevity. In the village, Adolfo and Vitalio introduce me to their two oldest sisters: 106-year-old Consolata (107 in August), and 101-year-old Claudina. Claudina insists she’s actually only 18. She was born in 1913. ‘It’s God who’s kept me young!’ she shouts. She’s quite deaf, and unlike her younger
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CLAUDINA MELIS, 101 BORN JUNE 30, 1913 ‘IF YOU WANT TO LIVE A LONG LIFE, GO TO CHURCH EVERY WEEK’
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All of the Melis siblings are active members of their community and enjoy socialising. Vitalio (below left) chats to the other elderly menfolk of Perdasdefogu, while Consolata (bottom) still attends church regularly with her sister Claudina. There are estimated to be over 400,000 centenarians worldwide still enjoying life to the full
brothers, she does look her age, with the sunken cheeks of the very old, and her diminutive body disappearing under swathes of black fabric. However, her dark eyes still have a youthful twinkle as she leans in to talk to me conspiratorially, like a schoolgirl with a secret to whisper. ‘Real life is the one that comes after this,’ she tells me. ‘But the next life depends on what you’ve done here. I did some naughty things with my brothers and sisters when I was a girl.’ For her 100th birthday, Claudina had a celebratory mass taken by one of her sons, a Catholic priest. As he addressed the congregation and said: ‘We’re here to celebrate 100 years of the life of my mother,’ Claudina heckled him. ‘Cento anni! Ma quanti peccanti?’ – ‘A hundred years! But how many sins?’ When I ask her what she meant by this, she giggles. ‘If you want to live a long life…,’ she begins, rummaging around in her pockets to find something – might this be the secret? – then she pulls out a length of prayer beads. ‘You must do the rosary every day, and go to church every week.’ While she firmly believes the next life is the real life, researchers think that her faith may well be lengthening her stay in this world. Having a peaceable attitude keeps her stress levels down, and being a part of something meaningful gives her a reason to get out of bed and live another day. As does her family. Around the corner at Consolata’s first-floor flat, I find the eldest sibling surrounded by a large entourage of daughters, nieces, granddaughters, brothers, sisters and other family members.
‘How many children does Consolata have?’ Massimiliano interrupts to ask me. ‘Thirteen,’ I reply. ‘And a total of 69 grandchildren, greatgrandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.’ ‘Thirteen!’ he marvels. Throwing his girlfriend a hopeful glance, he suggests: ‘Children are important for a long life then, eh?’ Certainly, that’s the case if the Melis are anything to go by – along with a strong family bond. As the oldest, Consolata holds court, merrily interrupting everyone to say what she wants to say, and everyone respectfully giving way to her. She’s dressed up especially for our visit in the traditional garb of a Sardinian widow, with black skirt, shirt, and headscarf, and her head is constantly darting from person to person as she follows the line of conversation through bottleend glasses, before chipping in. By the time Vitalio was born, she was a married woman with a one-year-old baby of her own. Pointing at Antonino, another brother, aged 95, she says he was always a good boy, but the other two, Vitalio and Adolfo, were always naughty. Consolata is speaking Sardu, an official language of Sardinia, which is being translated into Italian, and then into English for my benefit. It’s hard to follow but eventually she pronounces: ‘The meaning of life is to work hard.’ That, if nothing else, is a motto in tune with the times we are living in now, I explain to the midnight table of guests at my agriturismo. Which brings me back to the theory I’m holding in my hand. ‘La tua salute – your good health,’ I say to my hosts Franca and Massimiliano, raising my glass of Cannonau. They reply with the traditional Sardinian blessing: ‘Akent’annos – may you live to be 100 years old.’