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Live Slow, Die Old

Europe has found its fountain of youth: Silanus is one of four villages on the world where people grow older than anywhere else. Their secrets? Something like Sheep, Luck & Olive Oil.

Longevity has never been so simple. For centuries, men have trekked across the globe in search of the elusive fountain of youth. Catch the next flight to Sardinia and the prize is yours. Perched in the heart of the mediterranean island is the village of Silanus, at first glance a village like any other, 2,300 inhabitants, a few houses huddled around a couple streets. Yet one can read history from the lines in these people’s faces. Talk to Michele Mura and the furrows facing you spell out stories of work and weariness. Yet, his words glow in their relaxed lack of regret.

Tiu Micheli (‘Uncle Michele’), or so the villagers call him, is wearing pants that flutter around his thin legs, oversized rubber boots, and a bright green coat. The sky arches over his flock of sheep. Everyday, he takes his animals to pasture and, on the side, cultivates a small vineyard. Michele is 83 years old. “The country air is my medicine,” he confesses, also admitting that he feels like he’s in retirement, as he relies on the help from his son these days, despite his remarkable youth.

Another hardworking resident, Tonino Cola, is the baby of the group at age 77. His daily routine includes an early start to tend to his donkey, sheep and cattle. He follows their search for green for kilometres and often spends his nights in the open, as he is afraid that thieves might decimate his herd. “There must be passion in what a man does, even when there are jobs to do” explains Tonino, who reminds of an ancient knight in search of adventure. As he unfolds his lunch parcel, he tells of the diet the island provides him with: meat, cheese, and ‘nieddu,’ a red wine he produces himself alongside his garden vegetables. With the introduction of the Euro and its markets, many locals decided to start producing vegetables from their gardens. And from here the elixir to longevity sprouts under the mediterranean sun. A diet heavy on fish, vegetables and whole grain bread is worlds away from preprepared and prepackaged fare. Here, memories work like clockwork: Torino speaks for hours about the genealogical trees of his relatives, relates the adventures of his uncle, a pilot in the Second World War. Cigarettes? Not many, only when times are tough. Medicine? Even fewer and only when he really needs them. The strongest medicine the village has ever seen is a simple antibiotic.

Silanus is, in many ways, like any other municipality on Sardinia. It rose to international fame when scientists from the National Institute for Aging in the USA identified it as a world longevity hotspot—along with the Japanese island of Okinawa, the city of Loma Linda in California, and parts of Costa Rica. No clear explanation exists as to why this village has more centenarians and 90 year olds per resident than anywhere else in Europe. According to a European set of statistics, Silanus would have to be five times larger, if one goes by the average number of ‘dinosaurs’ walking these streets. Whereas the rest of the planet has one male to every four female centenarians, here the men hold a decided advantage: twice more than the average elsewhere.

Quiet lives free from the sickness of stress, food pulled from one’s own land that requires daily care, exertion that couldn’t be more different than jogging or the gym: perhaps this is the magic formula for a century’s worth of health. But could it be that genetic factors are just as influential as the active life of these grandfathers and –mothers? The isolation of the village’s and the island´s gene pool, could in part, explain the general long life of the residents of Silanus and Sardinia as a whole. Scientists from the University of Sassari are testing this theory in their project, coined AkeA – from the traditional Sardinian expression a kent’annos, ‘into one hundred years’. “Of course the genetic factor is important,” states the town councillor for culture, Gigliola Congiu, over a plate of local, sheep’s milk cheese, Pecorino, “but don’t forget that, especially during the war, food has always been precious and people live austere lives. But, most importantly, everyone here is surrounded by relatives, making them feel wanted in society.”

The social ambience of the village inoculates residents against loneliness, a scourge of the metropolitan elderly. A hospice wouldn’t have a chance here. Francisco Nieddu, former mayor and founder of Pro Loco, an institution organising cultural events and activities, has is own theory to the local ruggedness. He speaks about natural selection, as the 80 and 90 year olds have in younger years all survived the malaria formerly endemic in the area.

He says people are physically stronger and more resistant to disease and is not sure his children will be able to follow in their footsteps. Children are paramount here, and age doesn’t stop parents caring for their little ones. Stefano Cossu is said to have a child’s face, merely a few creases run down his 93 year old face. He has just finished helping his son Andrea with the sheep in the barn, when he arrives to perform with his other son, Angelo. Both sing canto a tenore, a Sardinian polyphonic chant declared a cultural heritage by UNESCO.

The unbelieving bystanders watch as he leans on his kitchen table, singing with a strong, deep voice. The presentation seems to prove that longevity is in the mind. Another shining example of this is Andreana Penduzzu, 95. Sitting in front of the fireplace in her black dress, she wouldn’t seem a likely candidate for a punch line or disarming joke. But she jokes with visitors and adoring children and grandchildren alike.

Sardinians are typically energetic, but this lady would make thirty year olds jealous. She says it is her grandchildren keeping her alive year after year. “Of course genes are relevant for a long life,” explains Claudia Hennig, president of the German section of the European Society of Anti-Aging Medicine, “but the difference between not being able to walk at 70 and a healthy old age lies in your lifestyle. Basically, growing old is like saving money for your retirement: the earlier you start living a healthier life, the less effort is required when you’ve reached old age.” Surely this is a good suggestion and an easy one to follow in a village like Silanus. The trick will be to transfer such a lifestyle to the metropolis, amid smog and the fastrhythmed life we lead. Are we up to the challenge? The answer should come around in about a century at the latest.

In the box:

Europe is going white. Old Europe leads the world in the proportion of elderly. Time is stopping for no one: while 15.9 percent of the European population was over 65 in 2005, this number is expected to rise to 27.6 percent by 2050. The value the increased number of elderly add to society comes with a commitment. The growth of costs in social and health services grows as the percentage of the working population sinks. The European Union obviously wants to keep its seniority occupied and productive. To help grandmothers and grandfathers feel like the spring chickens they once were, the EU has launched ElderGames, an initiative to improve mental faculties through play.

Author/Photos: Silvia Cravotta

Translation: Irene Accardo


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