Italy is getting older

Italy is ageing: it is bound to become the oldest country in Europe within the next 35 years
Italy is ageing: it is bound to become the oldest country in Europe within the next 35 years (Martin/flckr)

Demographics have been showing Italy has been getting older for quite a while. ISTAT, the Italian National Institute for Statistics, recently confirmed 2015 has been the year with the lowest natality rate since the Unification.

That was in 1861, for those not too informed on Italian history.

Only 488.000 baby Italians were born last year, 15.000 less than in 2014. The average age increased to 44.6 years. Italians over 65 are 13.4 millions, that is, 22% of the entire population.

2015 has also been a year filled with deaths: 9.1% more than in 2014. This has caused the notoriously high Italian life expectancy to drop slightly: 80.1 years for men (it was 80.3 in 2014), 84.7 for women (85 in 2014). Mind, in spite of this light diminution, Italy remains one of the countries with the best life expectancy in the world: according to the WHO, Italy rests happily at number 2 (along with a bunch of other countries like Spain, Singapore and Australia).

So, yes, Italy is getting older, it has been for quite a while and things are not supposed to get any better. The WHO again has decreated that, by 2050, Italy will  be the oldest country in Europe. Even today, Italy’s North East is one of the European regions with the highest life expectancy.

Certainly, being an old country is not a positive trend, but Italy has been taking it all in stride:  the country has even had a stint in the Guinness World Record in 2012 when the Melis family, resident in a small Sardinian village hidden in the Ogliastra hills, became the family with the highest mean age in the world.

The nine siblings, who held a total age of 818 years and 205 days (at the 1st of June 2012), were only recently surpassed by a British family (12 brothers and sisters, though!): in other words, Italian longevity remains the stuff of myths.

Nutrigenomics Helps Understand how to age well

A healthy diet can increase longevity (Sammy Jay Jay/flickr)

Recently, the Istituto Europeo di Oncologia (European Institute of Oncology) in Milan, has created the Smartfood diet, a vademecum of the healthiest ingredients to introduce in our diets to keep healthy and age well.

Nutrigenomics, the science combining genetics to nutrition to understand how to prevent diseases and illnesses, teaches us that food can, indeed, activate the genes of longevity. There are, according to research, 32 foods that can help us ageing better and more healthily. Many of them, you will notice, are typical ingredients of the Mediterranean diet.

Blood oranges and purple grapes contain anthocyanin; paprika and chilli contain capsaicin; black and green tea contain epigallocatechin gallate; persimmons, strawberries and apples are rich in fisetin, where asparagus, capers, onion and dark chocolate in quercetin. All are substances known to fight cardiac, neurodegenerative and metabolic diseases.

Other foods are considered protective against certain pathologies: garlic, whole cereals, aromatic herbs, fresh fruits, nuts, legumes and, of course, extra virgin olive oil, are among them.

Other hints to age slower and better?

Oily fish like herrings is a great help in slowing the ageing process and keeping us healthy
(13:9clue/flickr)

… Here they are:

  • Eat fish three times a week: especially oily fish like anchovies, sardines, mackerel, herrings or other fat-rich fish like salmon. They all have a high content of fatty acids and omega 3, which help decrease cholesterol and reduce the risk of stroke, cardiovascular disease and arteriosclerosis.
  • Eat at least three pieces of fruit per day: vitamins contained in fresh fruit boosts your immune system and hightens the chances to successfully fight infections.
  • Eat at least two portions of vegetables per day: this is essential to fight free radicals, which cause ageing. Moreover vegetables contain plenty of fibres, important to keep your body regular. Favour steamed, raw  and even baked veggie over boiled and fried, as they maintain their organoleptic properties intact and are light in calories and dangerous fats.
  • Eat a piece of DOP Grana Padano each day: the minerals and vitamins contained in it also support your immune system. Vitamin A, E, zinc, selenium, iron and calcium strengthen and protect the organism.
  • Use plenty of raw extra virgin olive oil: it is rich in mono-unsaturated fats, vitamin E and polyphenols, all necessary to improve cellular health, and potentially prevent certain types of cancers.
  • Drink a lot of water: this is a mantra. Drink at least two litres of fresh water and herbal teas per day, stay away from sugary sodas, and your body will thank you for it.

The more your walk the longer you live

Moving is essential to be healthy, but you do not need to spend all your spare time at the gym to see benefits.

A recent study carried out by the George Institute for Global Health and the Menzies Research in Tasmania, on a sample of people over 59 years of age found out that walking 10.000 steps (around 5 miles) every day reduces the risk of mortality by 46%. Even just 3000 steps daily (1.5 miles), 5 days a week can reduce mortality by 12%. This study was the first to be conducted using a pedometer, to monitor the actual amount of steps taken by each member of the sample, instead of relying on less accurate questionnaires.

There is more: the health benefits of walking depended only and exclusively on … walking itself, as it appeared that results were not affected by BMI or unhealthy habits such as smoking.

Movement can also increase longevity in both men and women (Maurizio Costanzo/flickr)

Reading about it, Italian style

If you read Italian, look no further than Dr Filippo Ongaro‘s works. Ongaro, worked for ESA, the Agenzia Spaziale Europea (the EU equivalent of NASA), taking specifically care of austronauts coming back from space. He had noticed that the time spent in absence of gravity provoked a quick deterioration of his patients’ physical conditions: in other words, outer space makes Man age more quickly. Specialized in nutrogenomics, Ongaro realized that the right diet could slow ageing in austronauts and even reverse the process.

Ongaro, who is the first Italian to have obtained the Board Certification in Anti-Ageing Medicine from the American Board of Regenerative and Anti-Ageing Medicine, as well as a specialist diploma in functional medicine from the Institute for Functional Medicine decided to divulgate to us mere mortals his story and knowledge through a series of easy-to-read, yet medically accurate and informative books. These are, however, only available in Italian for the moment, although easily accessible through Amazon.

His best known publications certainly are:

  • Mangia che ti Passa: where Ongaro tells about his medical experience with austronauts, and explains how food and genetics can make us live longer and better. The book is filled with suggestions of good foods to eat and why we should eat them, as well as a detailed description of how a lot of what we put daily on our tables should go straight in the bin.
  • Mangia che Dimagrisci: where Ongaro expands on the topic of Mangia che ti Passa, but focusing specifically on weightloss.
  • La Spesa della Salute: Ongaro here teaches us how 10 simple rules to follow while shopping can make a huge difference to our well being.

In English, you can try:

  • The Food Hourglass: Slow Down the Aging Process and Lose Weight, by Dr Kris Verburgh: easy to read and filled with interesting information on how food can successfully help slow the ageing process.
  • The Anti Ageing Cookbook, by Teresa Cutter: Cutter puts her chef and nutritionist expertise at our disposal to teach us how to cook perfect meals to keep us young.
  • Natural Wonderfoods: 100 Amazing Foods for Healing, Immune-Boosting, Fitness-Enhancing, Anti-Ageing, by Paula Bartimeus, Charlotte Haigh and Sarah Merson: this is a great starter’s guide to the benefits of certain types of food. Great to keep in the house and consult, and perfect to read to get a fair idea of what is truly good for you.

These books, too, are all avaible on Amazon.

Ageing healthily has become paramount in Italy (Sebastiano Pitruzzello/flickr)

As of today, Italy’s ageing process seems unstoppable and let us face it, that is not good. Being healthier for longer, then, becomes paramount for Italians, who also have to deal with the fact that retirement age keeps rising.

Science has been showing simple changes in our everday’s life can make a huge difference to our health, especially when it comes to nutrition. Italians, in truth, have been embracing this trend happily, as it brings little or no difference to their eating habits, which were already among the healthiest in the world. There is, however, more awareness of how food works within our organism, preventing, healing and rejuvenating.

When it comes to movement, Italians are not much better than your average Joe: we do tend to avoid exercise and we have become increasingly sedentary. Even if many did ditch the car and walk or cycle to work, there is still a lot to do on this frangent: if we started walking more and kept up the good eating habits, though, we may well become the oldest, yet healthiest, of countries.

Francesca Bezzone

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