long healthy life in Mallorca
In 2008, National Geographic reporter Dan Buettner published a now famous report on longevity. He scoured death registers around the world and singled out five “blue zones” where residents live at a distance. ripe old age. These were the small Greek island of Ikaria, the mountainous region of Barbagia in Sardinia, Linda Loma and her Adventist religious in California, the long Nicoya peninsula in Costa Rica, and the fishing island of ‘Okinawa in Japan.
Buettner visited each location, scrutinizing the elderly, their diet, environment, lifestyles, family structures and general outlook on life. There is nothing conclusive, just a report on how these elderly people lived so long and so well. In a world where every new diet, supplement and tendency to exercise comes with the promise of a longer, healthier life, I prefer to rely on the proven experience of Buettner’s centenarians.
In my work, I constantly refer to Buettner’s discoveries. “The chairs are a killer,” I tell my Western clients, “look at the Japanese”. Their tatami furniture makes them climb onto the floor and back up several times a day, continually strengthening their ankles, knees and hips. As a result, Japan has 28% fewer deaths – caused by injuries from slips, trips and falls – than the United States.
Or how the mountain shepherds of Sardinia drink cannonau red wine, eat bread and goat cheese and always keep their sheep well in their nineties. These men have never seen a gym in their lives. Still, they keep their legs and hearts strong as they walk five kilometers a day over rocky, hilly terrain.
But aside from the gems of longevity in Buettner’s book, there was one paragraph that stood out to me. After publishing his first article on longevity, “The Secrets of Long Life,” Buettner was curious to find out more about the blue areas of the world, so he spoke to French demographer Michel Poulain. “Yes, there are other places,” Poulain told Buettner, recently returned from his investigative trips to two other Mediterranean islands: Crete and our small island of Mallorca. Sadly, after scrutinizing demographic databases, Poulain concluded that Mallorca and Crete “are not as special as Sardinia”.
But that was in the early 2000s. Times have changed. Could it be that demographers are once again naming our islands as one of the healthiest regions in the world?
Like many Mediterranean islands, our archipelago enjoys an exceptionally high life expectancy and the third highest of any province in Spain. That’s high in a country where life expectancy rose from 77 years in 1991 to 84 years in 2019, according to the National Institute of Statistics (INE). Consider Hong Kong only topped the list with a national average life expectancy of 85 years.
Some demographers have already dug a little deeper. For example, Joan B Soriano is associate professor of medicine at the Autonomous University of Madrid. In 2014, it aimed to determine if there was a blue area in Es Migjorn Gran, a small municipality in the middle of Menorca.
Sadly, Soriano found that life expectancy peaked in 2007 and has since peaked at the Balearic average. There is now no record of any other centenarians surviving at Es Migjorn Gran.
However, as national life expectancy continues to rise, there could be some new centenarians in pottery about. I know one: Tio Toni in Deia, who, at 104, is a living monument.
The important lesson here is this: Living on these islands, we don’t need to look for a fountain of youth. The secrets to a long, healthy life are right under our noses. We just have to remember the traditional food and lifestyle; the simple elements of our culture which led Buettner to mention Mallorca in the same breath as the other blue zones.
And so, let’s continue to eat on our Mediterranean diet, rich in olive oil, legumes, fruits and vegetables.
Let us cherish our local festivals and our communities that nourish our sense of community and belonging. (On that note, we need to recognize the longevity benefits of faith and our faith communities. All but five the 263 centenarians Buettner interviewed belonged to a faith community. He found that attending church services four times a month – regardless of denomination – adds up to 14 years of life expectancy.)
And, finally, we must stay active. Maybe not in the gym, but no genuine Mallorcan languished in bed before they died. No, the elderly here are versatile. They are shepherds, fishermen, shoemakers and farmers. They spend their days shearing sheep, building and repairing dry stone walls, picking olives and mending nets. And, like the shepherds of Sardinia, they spend their days raising cattle on our rocky mountains of Tramuntana.