In the southern Sardinian town of Orroli a gang ofloiterers have gathered on the side of the road, busying themselves with nothing in particular. Most sit on the kerb side or in doorways; two lean against the wall discussing last night’s football. Meanwhile, an elderly woman shuffles past at a fair old pace, given her advancing years. One of the lads shouts out, causing her to turn on her heels and gesticulate wildly. Everyone laughs, applauding the retort, and talk gradually returns to the match. Silence ensues when a beautiful girl of around 20 walks past, all perky from the front and pert from behind. The lads look on in admiration until the silence is broken, not by a wolf whistle but a doleful sigh. ‘We look, but mostly through eyes that are moist with tears,” says Giorgio, the gang leader. “Such beauty reminds us of the passing of time.” Profound words for someone so young at heart. But despite spending a good deal of time hanging around on street corners like a typical teen, Giorgio’s salad days are long gone. At 97 years old, Giorgio is the unofficial spokesman for Orroli’s sizeable contingent of senior citizens.
Slim, sprightly and with all faculties intact, he is typical of the village elders. That is to say, he is not exceptional Orroli is home to a good deal of very old, very healthy people.
Several inhabitants of Orroli and its neighboring villages live into their second century. The population is less than 3000 and yet the last decade has seen nine centenarians, among them Vicenza Organza, 105, and Giovanni Frau, peaking at 112. At the time of hi. death in June 2003, Frau was Europe’s oldest man. When Antonio Todde died in the nearby town of Nuoro in January 2002, three weeks shy of his 113th birthday, he was the oldest man on earth. Fact is, should you reach telegram age here, there’s a chance your milestone will be observed by an even older elder.
Sardinia, an island off the west coast of Italy, has 1.6 million inhabitants. At least 220 have reached 100 — that’s twice the average global quota of centenarians and the highest found anywhere. Plus, a fair few of these have been men, bucking the trend that women centenarians outnumber male ones 4:1. Across Sardinia, the ratio is 2:1. Inland, the ratio is evens. Peek into your typical Brit bingo hall or old folks’ home and you’ll more than likely be greeted by a sea of permed blue rinses and the whiff of lavender. Not so in Orroli. Here the men stand as good a chance of hitting the high numbers as women.
Made in the Med
Unlike other parts of the developed world, Orroli’s seniors find themselves in the thick of things— although there are a few groups of teens skulking around town, it’s the oldies who’ve nabbed the prime spots, musing on life as it passes by. A good spot, one occupied by Giorgio and his friends, is opposite the church from which their wives pour out each evening. Without leaving their seats they shout out their supper orders before returning to conversation.
“I probably spend more time talking with the men here than I do with my wife,” admits a grinning, toothless Giorgio. “But then, over the decades my wife and I have pretty much said everything there is to say to each other!
“I don’t think there’s a secret to living a long and active life,” he continues, “other than to do everything in moderation: don’t rush, drink a little wine, eat small meals, wake early and allow yourself a nap later in the day.”
It’s vague advice but nevertheless consistent with that of anyone you’d care to ask in Orroli. For some the secret is in the clean air, for others it’s the local vegetables, the local Pecorino cheese, the natural spring water, the daily glass (or two) of regional red wine. What we are talking about here is the famed Mediterranean diet and lifestyle: food rich in antioxidants, monounsaturated fats, fibre and nutrients; an existence that is active but not frenetic. The manifest benefits of the Med are well known, but can this really be the sum of it? Inhabitants of the Greek islands, Italy and Turkey have similar diets, but none of these places are quite like Orroli.
Keep it in the family
Our chat concluded, Giorgio rises and excuses himself. He has farmed all his life — his face wears the lines of a man who has spent his years in the fields and he has crops to tend to. In an hour or so, after a walk into the hills, Giorgio will be on his knees digging potatoes.
Quite a feat at his age, I say to Ernesto, a youthful-looking 82 year old and member of Giorgio’s gang. “Not really,” he shrugs. “I remember a few years ago there was a local man in his nineties who would ride his horse through the town most days on his way to tend his land.” He then goes on to quietly point out that it’s possible to be old and active in other ways, too. “You know, my grandfather became a father at the age of 88, ” he tells me proudly. An impressive feat, but not something you want to dwell on.
Later, a twenty-something local woman admits that not all of Orroli’s aged lead lives as active as Giorgio and his friends. “When they get old, after about 102 or 103, then they tend to start slowing down. You don’t see many using bicycles beyond their late nineties,” she explains with deadpan expression.
Orroli is pleasant, but it’s not exactly what you’d call a happening place. It’s so sleepy, in fact, that it’s hard to sit down for more than a few minutes without dozing off. A few cars pass through the narrow streets, but in the main it is a part of the world unsullied by the pollution, greed and ambition of modem life. People have lived the same way here for centuries, and to Agostino Vargiu, who runs the town’s hotel and main restaurant, this is key to Orroli’s success.
The restaurant uses local produce and employs traditional cooking methods. `We have a calming environment here,” he says. “People are not lazy. They do the work that needs to be done, but they don’t overdo things. Getting a good amount of rest, fresh air, eating fresh local food — all these things undoubtedly help,” says Vargiu. But crucially, he suspects there might be more to it.
“The key thing here, though, is that there has been very little marrying outside of the town. Here in Orroli we’re pretty much all related.” In Orroli it is commonplace for cousins to many. When asked about the islanders’ penchant for keeping it in the family, Professor Luca Deiana, a molecular biologist at Sardinia’s Sassari Univerity, puts it this way: “Look at a Sardinian phone book and you’ll see there are relatively few different surnames.” Convinced of a greater significance owed to genetics, Deiana has dedicated his work to research on the chromosomal makeup of longevity in Sardinia. After all, Deiana has a vested interest — records show that in the early 1900s a man by the name of Voche Deiana managed a mighty 124 years before finally croaking.
The trend for long life in Orroli and other nearby inland towns prompted the professor, together with a team of 25 doctors and biologists, to launch an exhaustive study of every Sardinian to have passed the 100 mark since the late 19th century. The results were presented at a town hall meeting in Orroli last May. The study showed that in the more industrialized areas of Sardinia the population’s health is “continually under siege” from external, environmental assaults. As a result, mortality was shown to be higher than in the rural interior of the island.
Genetically, Orroli’s old showed a marked delay or from age-associated diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and cancers that specifically affect the elderly. Ageing is often associated with a lowering tithe secretion of hormones from our adrenal glands and gonads — in some of Orroli’s centenarians, levels of these hormones appear to rise. It was also noted that if one of your parents manages to live beyond 100, then you’ve a higher than average chance of doing the same.
Live and let live
What about those of us not so fortunate to be born and bred in a sunny, tomatoes-and-olive oil-soaked Sardinian gene pool? According to one group of scientists from the University of Southern Denmark, breeding isn’t everything. Using research on pairs of elderly twins, they concluded that only 25% of what keeps us ticking is down to genes. One thing everyone seems to agree on, from scientists to Orroli centenarians, is that the secret to long life lies in a combination of genetics, diet and environmental factors.
So what can you do about it? Alas, there is no simple answer. Some of what keeps us living for longer is down to luck; some is just plain common sense. If you don’t drive, rarely take taxis and manage to avoid crossing roads, then it’s unlikely that a traffic accident will curtail your life. If you’re prone to spending your evenings in sixth gear, then a fatal car crash is more probable. The adrenalin rush that accompanies a life lived on the edge puts significant strain on the heart — you only have to look at how fast our world leaders age. It’s no coincidence that Bill Clinton ended his presidency needing a quadruple heart bypass. (Neither should it be a surprise that Tony Blair’s favored holiday spot is the rolling landscape of Tuscany.)
This same temperate principle applies to diet, vice and lifestyle choices. Of course, you could reasonably argue that a reclusive existence sustained by tomatoes and borlotti beans isn’t everyone’s idea of quality of life. So some other avenues are being investigated. Stem cell research, nanotechnology, genetic engineering and cloning are all being explored in the young field of anti-ageing science by a group of scientists known as gerontologists. “People have different risk factors depending on gene mutations,” says Michael Klentze, director of the Klentze Institute of Anti-Ageing in Munich. “If we measure these in the lab you can know very early how you need to change your lifestyle. Eventually, stem cell technology will allow people to regain lost hair, remove wrinkles, and grow new nerves.”
But increased longevity comes at what cost? Living and behaving like the libidinous geriatrics from those Olivio adverts is one thing, sitting hunched and weary beyond our expected “live by” dates is another. Dr Aubrey de Grey, Cambridge University’s leading gerontologist and an advocate of life extension through biological intervention (profiled on p134), doesn’t see cause for concern. “The idea that we should extend life without extending quality of life is a myth,” he says. “There’s a belief that by making us live longer, all we’ll be doing is prolonging our period of decline. But that’s not true.
“Our research shows once it starts, the end period of our life — the period over which things start to shut down — covers roughly the same period of time.” So our body’s shut-down process will last the same amount of time whether it begins when we are 70 or 170.
“Until the decline kicks in,” claims de Grey, “we continue to be healthy. I’m interested in finding the precursors to this decline and seeing what can be done to put off its onset.” In the meantime, the outlook for much of the Western world is bleak. Barring wars and their spanners in the statistical works, our life expectancy has consistently risen over the past few centuries. Until now. Thanks to our stressed and often sedentary lives, the subsequent rise in obesity means there’s a genuine risk that children born today will not enjoy as long a life as their parents. Professor Colin Waine, chairman of the UK’s National Obesity Forum, has referred to the situation as “a public health time bomb”. Meanwhile, research from Chicago’s University of Illinois suggests that by 2057, the life expectancy at birth of supersized Americans, currently 77.6 years, will have dropped by between two and five years. For the foreseeable future at least, we must content ourselves with adopting more of a Men’s Health approach to life. As Dr de Grey concedes, “Exercise is key—both physical and mental. You see that on Sardinia. The elderly there tend to lead gently active lives and engage in debates rather than sit quietly in a chair waiting to die.”
The future’s old
Back in Orroli, a world away from TV dinners and couch potatoes, the times are nevertheless a-changing. Traditional life is preserved as much as possible, but a significant proportion of the town’s young are now moving away in search of jobs and further education in the cities. Those who stay behind still have a penchant for the local red wine, but they now also drink Coca-Cola.
Professor Deiana and the world’s gerontologists continue to hunt for the secrets of long life. Further research will take time but, given his genetic background and provenance, Professor Deiana, a man in his early sixties, should have a fair bit of time left. Chances are that Giorgio has a little less in the tank, but as long as he continues to keep his mind and body active, enjoying the good things in life in moderation, then he has a healthy chance of being around to blow out the hundred candles on his milestone birthday cake.
They used to have a saying on Sardinia: “A kentannos.” It roughly translates as, “Until we meet again at 100.” ‘The saying is no longer sufficient,” says Professor Deiana. “Now we say, ‘A Izent’annos eprusu, e tue a los contare.’ That is to say, To 100 and more, and may you be there to do the counting.”‘