Scientists to Study Italian Village Known for Long Lifespans


Lisa Chik

UCSD researchers, in collaboration with colleagues at University of Rome La Sapienza, will have first-time access to study the disproportionately high percentage of centenarians living in the remote village of Acciaroli, Italy. UCSD Health announced in a press release on March 29 that the team hopes to discover what combination of genetic and environmental factors allow them to live longer with lower rates of disease. 

The average life expectancy in the United States, according to UCSD Health, is approximately 78 years and only 0.02 percent of Americans will live to be over 100 years old. In contrast, Acciaroli has a population of 2,000, including roughly 300 centenarians. According to Lead Investigator Alan Maisel, a UCSD professor of cardiovascular medicine, 20 percent of the centenarians are believed to be over 110 years old despite many being smokers and overweight.

“We are the first group of researchers to be given permission to study this population,” Maisel told UCSD Health. “The goal of this long-term study is to find out why this group of 300 is living so long by conducting a full genetic analysis and examining lifestyle behaviors, like diet and exercise.”

Over the next six months, this joint research team will analyze blood samples, test for cognitive dysfunction and examine resilience to several diseases, including heart disease and Alzheimer’s.

Salk Institute’s Integrative Genomics and Bioinformatics Core Director Christopher Benner believes that longevity is likely due to both genetic and environmental components.

“With respect to environmental influences, the Acciaroli population largely eats a Mediterranean diet, rich in olive oil, sardines and lots of fresh herbs,” Benner told the UCSD Guardian.

According to the Express, experts previously credited rosemary, an herb commonly used in Mediterranean cooking, for extending the lifespan of Italians. Its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties are also believed to relieve muscle pain, improve circulation and boost the immune system.

Acciaroli is located between the Tyrrhenian Sea and mountain ranges, forcing locals to hike on a daily basis. As a result, Maisel noted that people allotted time for leisurely activities, but few were seen exercising.

“What shocked me is that I don’t see people jogging, I do not see people in active exercise classes [and] I don’t see them swimming laps in the ocean,” Maisel told NPR. “In the late afternoon, they’re all sitting around the cantinas, the restaurants. They’re having some wine, some coffee. They’re relaxed.”

Genes or metabolites found to strongly correlate with healthy aging would become the focus of follow-up efforts. Benner explained the need for understanding these molecular roles in opening doors for potential therapeutic intervention.

“The overarching goal of aging research and therapies, other than a longer life, is to simultaneously prevent or treat the large collection of aging-associated diseases at once,” Benner told the Guardian. “For example, living a healthy, active lifestyle with lots of exercise reduces your odds of heart diseases, type II diabetes, liver disease, many types of cancer, etc. Is there a supplement or small molecule that can compliment that approach?”

Lead Italian Investigator and Director of Emergency Medicine at University of Rome La Sapienza Salvatore Di Somma believes that this joint study will further encourage scientists all over the world to work together.

“This project will not only help unlock some of the secrets of healthy aging, but will build closer ties with researchers globally, which will lead to improved clinical care in our aging population,” Di Somma told UCSD Health.