There has always been a fascination with living long and living well and having recently spent time in Italy, home to some of the longest living people in the world, many believe red wine and olive oil is the key. Yet while these ingredients definitely play a role, it’s more likely the lifestyle that surrounds them that is the real secret.

Italy’s lifestyle is very different than ours here in the United States. For starters, they seem very focused on living life – and enjoying it, every day. Their daily activities center on family, friends, faith, and food obviously plays an important role too, but more on the gathering and fellowship than just what is being served. However, make no mistake, what they serve is delicious and it’s easy to see why it is a main focus of the day.

Since I spent most of my time in the outskirts, among the small villages surrounding the larger cities of Rome, Florence and Naples, it provided a more intimate perspective of how people spend their day, particularly older adults. Because there are no senior centers like we have here, the Italians’ activities and socialization occurs throughout their day via walks, mass, marketing for daily groceries, or in the cafes for meals or cappuccino’s, etc.

What was particularly intriguing was the number of older adults I saw walking, walking, walking. And along their way, they stop and chat with people, carry their groceries, and never, ever seemed to be in a hurry — just strolling along enjoying the day.

In the U.S. it always seems like everyone’s in such a hurry. I don’t know where we’re all going and why we’re always late via the pace we take, but it just seems like we’re always rushing around, not taking time to enjoy the moment.

That’s an important lifestyle difference among the Italians. Not only do they really take time to live life, they thoroughly enjoy it too. They don’t seem to always be thinking about the next thing they have to do or where they have to be next, and instead, they genuinely just enjoy the present and what it offers.

Americans need to recognize that stress plays a major role in our physiological health and well-being. In fact it’s estimated that 60 – 80% of all health problems in the U.S. are stress related.

In Italy, people start their days rather leisurely, work a few hours, shut it down between 1pm and 4pm for lunch (the largest meal of the day), take a little rest, and then open back up and work from 4pm to 7pm before closing up shop. Even the retirees spend their days the same way — this is just their culture.

There’s also a greater focus on family, too — generations living and working together. It’s not unusual to see a storefront shop or a restaurant that serves as both a place of business and a home to multi generations. People live in considerably smaller environments than here, with many more people residing in them. Family is life there — if they don’t live together, they see each other often, if not daily.

But when we look specifically at longevity in Italy, it’s the lifestyle – the combination of many of these things that is key. For example, in Sardinia, the Italian island with the highest number of male centenarians in the world, while both diet and activity play a role, so does socialization. One 104-year old gentleman would start his day with a glass of red wine, be out chopping wood by 9am and enjoy a steady parade of people who came by to ask his advice about things. Aging is revered here — the older you are there, the more celebrated you are.

But it’s the Italian diet that most people likely credit. While we know red wine contains the resveratrol compound, a powerful antioxidant that neutralizes the effects of cell-damaging free radicals that causes aging, it’s also the socialization aspects of consuming this delightful grape drink that plays an equally beneficial role. While it is a part of most meals, it’s how it’s consumed that makes the real difference – moderately and sipped slowly over the course of a long meal is the best way to absorb the resveratrol and maximize its health benefits.

Olive oil and lycopene, the powerfully effective antioxidant found in tomatoes, have also both been documented as protectors against heart disease. But it’s the combination of these items in their recipes, with the end result of the meal itself that is the real beneficial aspect. Italians love to break bread together in fellowship – they are quite a social culture and studies show that’s a very healthy ingredient in life.

While these are difficult aspects to measure specifically in true longevity studies, it’s obvious it’s working in Italy.  Italians are active daily, socially engaged, eat healthily, worship regularly, and celebrate family and living life. But it’s also about love – and the Italians definitely love life. And with the life they live, you can certainly see why it’s loved!  Amore!  Ciao Bella!