CIAO!

How Italians Live to 100: Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Sex

A recent study of elderly Italians shows what it takes to live to be 100.

09.06.16 5:00 AM ET

ROME — They are definitely doing something right in Acciaroli, Italy, a small town of 700 in the Cilento region south of Naples, where one in eight citizens is over 100 years old.

And these aren’t just your average centenarians. They are incredibly healthy, happy and, apparently, horny. Among the findings of a recent study into why they live so long is the observation that “sex is rampant,” Dr. Alan Maisel, a cardiologist spearheading the joint study by Rome’s La Sapienza and the University of San Diego, told AFP. 

Maisel discovered the city of youth on a holiday in 2012. He said at the time that he was struck by the fact that everyone around him seemed old. “I was at the beach, and I saw all these leathernecked, tanned people in their 90s and 100s who looked nine months pregnant and were smoking cigarettes,” he said at the time. “Things didn’t seem to add up: [They were] smoking and fat, but so relaxed and unstressed…At first, I asked if it was the Mediterranean diet, but they do that all over Italy.”

The study, called Cilento on Aging Outcomes Study or CIAO (which is kind of cute), started about six months ago when the two universities got local citizens to agree to be human guinea pigs. Over the course of the study, they did a lot of tests and asked a lot of questions about the local lifestyle. On Sunday, the doctors presented their findings at an aging symposium in nearby Pollica.

When reached by phone, Giuseppe Santonicola, a retired hotelier who won’t give an age other than “around 90,” laughs playfully at the idea of rampant sex among the over-80 set. “Magari! I wish!” he told The Daily Beast, but wouldn’t elaborate further.

Instead, he says the real reason is that the community works to maintain a certain quality of life. “We are very careful about what businesses we allow to open here,” he says, referring to the lack of industry that he, as a former councilman, worked hard to keep at bay. “And I do worry that the next generation won’t have that luxury, and will have greater economic concerns that might alter the quality of life.”

Among the most significant factors on the medical side of the study is the fact that the area residents have what the doctors call very good “perfusion”—the supply of blood reaching organs and muscles. It appears to be as proficient as that seen in “people 30 years younger.” That could be genetic, or it could be because of a lack of pollutants from industry, the study says. The younger relatives also exhibit similar genetic dispositions, even when one of the parents is from another province.

The elders also all exhibited low blood levels of a peptide hormone called adrenomedullin, which aids in circulation, and none of them showed the signs of dementia and confusion that many of their peers in parts elsewhere suffer. They had extremely low rates of both heart disease and Alzheimer’s compared to European and global averages.

Santonicola confirms that he has never really been unwell save the usual colds and a broken collarbone from falling down the mountainside. “We live a healthy, simple lifestyle,” he says. “Maybe that’s all it takes.”

Apart from the energetic libidos that undoubtedly help them stay physically active and in good humor, they almost all ate the herb rosemary on a daily basis, either infused in olive oil or cooked in pastas or even chewed raw, according to Salvatore Di Somma, who handled the Italian angle of the study.

They also used only the olive oil that they produce locally, and many enjoy daily slugs of local red or white wine. On the flip side, many of the area residents smoke cigarettes, and they don’t seem to avoid fried foods. One of the area’s most popular dishes is deep-fried anchovies.

The Cilento region has no major industry and very little pollution. People don’t use pesticides or herbicides, and they eat primarily fish they catch in the nearby sea or rabbits and chickens raised on local farms. The city, which is built on a mountainside, makes even a trip to the market a steep hike, and the study found that all of the seniors do some sort of physical activity every day, whether swimming or gardening or sex.

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The study divvied a test group into two categories. One, called the “super agers,” were those in the 100-year club, and the second was made up of their younger blood relatives. Curiously, the 100-plus residents are equally divided by gender, meaning women are not outliving the men as in other societies.

A German diagnostic company, Sphingotec, compared results from both the Cilento groups against another group that is part of an ongoing similar case study of 194 healthy people who have been under the Malmo Preventive Project, which is an ongoing Swedish study meant to follow the development of cardiovascular disease among people with a median age of 63, and which has provided a reliable medical baseline for many European studies on aging over the last eight years. The study found that the aging Italians proved to be above par compared to that group.

The goal of the Cilento study, which will now extend to a further 2,000 people from a wider area of the Cilento region, is to try to create a profile of what makes a healthy lifestyle that could be replicated in other parts of the world.

While it would be impossible to re-create a quaint Italian seaside village with no industry elsewhere, Di Somma believes that certain lessons in diet and exercise could be garnered from the aging of Acciaroli. “What we would like to create is a sort of clinical score sheet,” he told AFP before the results were presented. “A tool that says that someone who wants to live well for a long time should have a certain type of diet, a certain level of physical activity, a certain type of social life and a certain way of thinking.”

Similar studies, of those little pockets of longevity around the world known as “blue zones,” from Okinawa to Loma Linda, California, and Ikaria in Crete have provided similar findings. Perhaps the real secret to a long life is not living for the moment, but savoring it instead.