Italy can boast of having some of the oldest people on the planet. In fact, on November 29, 2016, Emma Morano turned 117. She is believed to be the oldest person in the world. Born in 1899 in the province of Vercelli in the Piedmont region, Emma’s life has spanned three centuries and earned heartiest wishes from the President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella.
Emma currently lives in Pallanza on Lake Maggiore. During her lifetime, she has seen 3 kings of Italy, 11 popes, and 12 presidents of the republic. In an interview, she explained that her secret is 3 eggs a day; she is aware that the diet that she has followed for decades, based on lady fingers, bananas, and pasta in beef broth, and until recently, gianduiotti (chocolate and hazelnut), would not be approved by many nutritionists.
Farther south in Italy are two regions and several towns where researchers are studying the diet and other factors in the exceptional longevity of residents. Acciaroli is a seaside town in Cilento (province of Salerno in the Campania region), where of the 700 residents, those over 80 exceeds 10 percent of the population. One in 60 is 90 or older compared to one in every 163 Americans (according to the 2010 census).
In fact, longevity reigns in the entire area of Cilento, but Acciaroli is a unique case. In this area, a particularly pungent variety of rosemary is grown and is a daily part of the diet. “They use rosemary on everything they cook,” says one of the researchers from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine. Some studies have shown that rosemary can aid brain function, and the researchers think that the variety grown in Acciaroli might aid microcirculation — the small capillaries that deliver nutrients to tissues and remove waste.
The quality of life for those over 90 in Acciaroli is high: virtually no cataracts, few bone fractures, excellent heart health, and a low incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. What about environmental factors and other food choices that could contribute to the health status? Residents raise and consume their own rabbits, and dine on anchovies from the local fishermen. Abundant sunshine and clean air enable people to be outdoors, to swim at the beaches, and to climb the hills along the coast. Researchers believe these could be contributory factors.
Farther south in Italy, a pleasant climate is also believed to be one of the factors that grant longevity to the people of Sardinia, an island in the Mediterranean Sea. With a population of 1.6 million, Sardinia has the world’s highest percentage of people who have passed the century mark. At least 371 of Sardinia’s population have reached the 100 —a ratio 20 times greater than that found in the United States.
Genetics may play a key role. Longevity is most common in the central-eastern mountainous region where the ruggedness of the geography has repelled invaders for centuries. Researchers have identified a gene in the Y chromosome that can significantly reduce heart attack and stroke in men. This gene, passed down from fathers to sons, could explain the 1-1 ratio of male to female centenarians in the area, while the ratio is generally 1-4 around the world.
The Sardinian diet may also be crucial. It is rich in nutrients from locally grown vegetables, simply prepared with olive oil, lemon, garlic, and other spices. The diet is also rich in protein derived from milk and cheese, while low in sugar and meat. Many eat meat –a small piece of lamb, lean pork, oily fish or shellfish– only once or twice a week. A glass of wine is part of the Sardinian culture.
And speaking of culture, in Sardinia, elders are held in high regard and included in family life. They continue to work—in cafes, gardens, and kitchens. Their lives have great meaning because they do not live in retirement homes, are integrated into daily life, and enjoy the affection of children, grandchildren, and others.
But, like I reported in “The Roseto Effect” (September 10, 2015), as modernization takes hold, many health advantages could disappear. The increasing presence of motor vehicles on Sardinia has greatly reduced the healthy exercise of walking. Obesity, unknown on the island prior to 1940, now affects about 10 percent of the population. And, as a local resident observed, “Children want potato chips and pizza. That’s what they see on TV. Bread and pecorino are considered old-fashioned.”