Consider efisio puddu, a former stonemason who has just celebrated his 102nd birthday. He lives in Selargius with his family, which surrounds us now in the tidy dining room. Among those gathered are his grandsons: round-faced Andrea, who sells magazines and flits into and out of the room, half listening; and Fabio, who is thin, intense, and observant, and isn't going anywhere.
"Please speak loudly," Puddu says. He went deaf in one ear when Cágliari was bombed during the second world war. He was a member of the state's military police at the time; it was his second tour of duty – he was already 42, after all.
"I never had any vices," says Puddu. "I never drank too much." If he had five lire in his pocket, he says, he would spend it on the operetta. "I always led a moderate life. A normal life." He chops the air with his hand and repeats: "Normalissima!"
This is not the first time I've heard this centenarian rejection of any suggestion of fanciness. It recalls a conversation I had yesterday with Antonio Argiolas, 97, a winemaker who first planted his vineyard in 1936 and during the grape harvest often slept there, while standing. "Work unceasingly," he advised, and as he said so a man walked straight into his house, money in hand, to buy a bottle of wine off him. Both Argiolas and Puddu seemed befuddled by the notion of desire. When I probed them for their favorite foods, their faces went blank, as if they didn't know the meaning of the word favorite.
I ask the members of the Puddu family if they will live as long as Efisio. They laugh. "We are going for 120," says his daughter Rosaria. But Fabio, the grandson, shakes his head. "Probably not," he says. "Genetics helps, but not without the lifestyle. My grandfather's life was very different, for many reasons. He was physically stressed, but not psychologically. The food is not the same as it used to be. There is pollution, genetic engineering, free radicals."
Fabio's mother explains that her son is a health food nut. She says this with a kind of fond exasperation, as if she were telling me he is mentally ill. "When my grandfather was young, everybody ate like this," Fabio says, picking up on her tone. "They ate meat once a week, at most." And, perhaps most important, "they ate less, and they drank less."
His grandfather nods along in agreement. How would you eat on an average day, I ask him.
"Normalmente!" he says (of course). Caffé latte in the morning, nothing more. For lunch, a fresh minestrone, followed by some pasta and beans, fruit, nuts, maybe a little meat, and cheese. The same for dinner, but less. And he has always had a glass of red wine with every meal.
A meager diet to be sure, by our standards – no wonder he never had any favorites. But I realize that Fabio may well be onto something. Over the past few years longevity researchers have identified calorie restriction as perhaps the most dramatic step an organism can take to extend its life span. The body, responding to the environmental stress of less energy, activates enzymes called sirtuins that boost the rate of cell repair, thus slowing the natural cellular deterioration at the crux of aging, and giving the undernourished subject some extra time to reproduce.
Some American longevity nuts have already been experimenting with a severely restricted 1,500-calorie-per-day diet, to try to mimic the life-lengthening results achieved in worms and primates. I don't know about you, but the thought of living to 110 with my stomach grumbling the whole time is my idea of hell. And that's what's so intriguing about the Sardinians: They seem to have achieved the same effect on 1,800 to 2,000 calories a day, or just 200 to 400 less than what I pig out on. As Lisa Walford, author of 'The CR Diet,' due out next spring, explains, they manage it by eating a healthful, satisfying diet that's consistently just a couple of slices of pistoccu short of what their body wants. Then they boost the effect by drinking glasses of rustic mountain-grown wine so teeming with polyphenols that it appears to trigger the release of more age-busting sirtuins.
Puddu and his fellow centenarians may well have unintentionally eaten and drunk and worked themselves into long, long lives – without wanting them, of course, or wanting anything. Just by being normalissima. While Fabio laments the decline of the traditional diet and lifestyle, his diet, which his parents view as trendy, shows how things may be coming full circle, and now I see the startling resemblance between the young man and the old. Fabio is sitting there, the same thin, angular face, depressed but without anxiety, 29 though everyone thinks he's 24 – a centenarian in training. He may not believe it, but if anyone in this room is going to make it to 100, I'd put my euros on him.
As I leave, Efisio grabs me with his mason's hands, still powerful, and puts a kiss on each of my cheeks. Fabio just shakes my hand solemnly. I say, "You look young, but you have an old soul."?Now he smiles, his face lit with the pleasure of being recognized. He searches for the words in English: "You look correct."