"Everything here lasts." Dr. Luca Deiana and I are sitting in his office in Cágliari, the capital of the Italian island of Sardinia, where everything is old. The island is old, a craggy hunk of geologically ancient granite and basalt carpeted with sheep pastures dating back to before the birth of Christ. "There is a wild olive grove that is 3,000 years old. And we know from our grandfathers that there have always been old people here. In the 1800s some lived to be over 100. There is this way that we greet each other: Akentannos. 'To 100 years.'" As in, may you live so long. And in Sardinia, it would seem, you very well may.
Dr. Deiana and his team of researchers from the University of Sássari have been studying Sardinia's centenarians, particularly those from the remote mountains in the interior of Núoro province. In 1999 his Akea project (from akentannos) found 66 people in Núoro who were 100 years old or more. In a regional population of 276,800, that's three times the average in the rest of the Western world. But even that wasn't the most astonishing fact. In most places, as men know only too well, women outlive us by a wide margin. "Everywhere else you have four woman centenarians to every man," Deiana says. In Sardinia, though, "you have two to one. And in central Sardinia the ratio is one to one."
The statistic is so extraordinary that at first the scientific community refused to believe it, dismissing it as just another of the apocryphal reports of clusters of very old men that periodically pop up. (Remember those 100-year-old guys in the Caucasus eating Dannon yogurt in those TV ads? A big hoax.) But in Sardinia the myth has stood up to the scrutiny of demographers, and when I went there myself it was easy to see why. The place is overrun with extremely old men. Everyone I speak to, even casually, seems to have a 90- or 100-year-old in the family. And they are more than just old: They are the youngest old people you've ever met. They live alone, cook for themselves, run shops, recite Dante from memory, go hunting, walk up and down hills after their sheep for miles every day, and are exceedingly slim. And that's not all. Deiana chuckles now over the case of a 102-year-old man he met who, after fondling a social worker, was sued for sexual harassment.
More important for us aspiring centenarians, they are starting to share their secrets with the scientists who have arrived from around the globe to poke and prod these ageless wonders. The researchers have discovered a nexus of surprising and surprisingly applicable factors at play: a vigorous work ethic, a certain dark pragmatism, a thirst for wine loaded with potent heart-protective polyphenols, a richly satisfying diet that has as much in common with Atkins as it does with typical Mediterranean fare, and an unexpected twist on an important recent discovery regarding the size of one's diet that suddenly makes it applicable to millions more men.
An acquaintance of mine in Rome had described Sardinia as a kind of magical island of "strange little brown people with mustaches and hats who live with sheep and drink wine and never die." What he failed to add was that we can all live like Sardinians if we want to.