At the turn of the late 2000s, Belgian demographer Michel Poulain was studying longevity patterns in several areas of Sardinia, including Barbagia, in the province of Nuoro: Poulain circled the area on a map with blue ink, giving rise to the term Blue Zones. Shortly afterwards, Dan Buettner also became interested in the subject, and decided to visit Barbagia to interview a few centenarians living in the area, in order to identify models of longevity based on culture or lifestyle.
Sardinia is a unique island: being isolated from Italy’s mainland, and has always been somewhat distrusting of visitors, to such an extent that the people living there not only actively pursue a different lifestyle, but have also developed different genetic characteristics from those seen in the rest of Europe. Sardinians, for example, are more at risk of contracting multiple sclerosis, and have higher average longevity rates.
The Sardinian lifestyle, especially in Barbagia, has not changed much over the centuries. The people living here have maintained their unique genetic traits, their economic isolation, and their attachment to traditional social values. Elders are respected, and seen as an invaluable source of experience; the family unit is crucial, and unwritten laws govern the community.
The heart of Sardinia’s Blue Zone, Barbagia, incorporates villages such as Fonni, Gavoi, Villagrande Strisaili, Talana, and Arzana. While exploring these villages, Buettner had the opportunity to talk to several centenarians, both men and women, and found that most of them eat their meals with family members, and spend time with friends. He also discovered that they worked hard for their entire lives, with the women taking care of the house and the men looking after the animals. Their lives centre around simple and unvarying daily and seasonal routines; they married and had children, who typically look after them now they are in their old age.
After spending a few days with the people of Barbagia, such as Tonino Tola, Buettner discovered that the typical Sardinian diet is often lower in fat than elsewhere in Europe, and is based on simple ingredients, such as pecorino cheese, which is rich in omega-3. Sardinians consume a great deal of goat’s milk, which could partly explain why Barbagia is a blue zone, because the goats in the area feed on an endemic plant, which has been shown to have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Lentisk oil, which is widely used in the area, also boasts antibacterial and anti-mutagenic properties.
The type of farming practised in Barbagia is not particularly strenuous or stressful, but it does require the farmers to walk several kilometres every day in the rugged Sardinian countryside. This kind of regular, low-impact activity strengthens bones and muscles without putting excessive pressure on the joints. It is generally a quiet, stress-free life, although it tends to put greater pressure on the women, as they typically stay at home and take care of the finances and family; this might be why, unlike elsewhere in the world, there are as many centenarian men in Barbagia as there are very elderly women.
There are a further two factors that affect longevity in Barbagia: the first is the family bond, whereby the elderly almost always live at home with their children, so they are able to participate in family life, they are involved in raising their grandchildren, they love and feel loved, and they have a purpose. According to the author, the Sardinians of Barbagia also appear to be somewhat strong-willed and stubborn, which makes them less susceptible to stress, while their unique brand of wit and sense of humour helps them to nip arguments in the bud and appreciate what they have.