Something in the Air

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When Elena Orru turned 100 in July, she got the obligatory birthday cake, a salute from the mayor and write-ups in the local press. Orru, who had just broken her hip, also received a bedside visit and a red rose from the village elder. No one knows better than Giovanni Frau, 111, that passing the century mark is reason to celebrate. But these two most senior of citizens also know that starting your second century in Orroli — a small town in the parched interior of the Italian island of Sardinia — isn't all that unusual. When Frau hit triple digits, in 1990, Vincenza Orgiana, just down the road, was approaching her 106th birthday. Over the past decade, five other Orroli natives (since deceased) have reached 100--and two more are set for their centennials next year — all this in a town of just 2,748 people.

Sardinians in general, it turns out, have a special propensity for living long. According to research conducted by Sardinian molecular biologist Luca Deiana, the island has the world's highest documented percentage of people who have passed the century threshold — although the same claim has been made about the Japanese island of Okinawa. Of 1.6 million Sardinians, at least 220 have reached 100, twice the typical ratio. Five of the world's 40 oldest people live on the island, and until the January death of Antonio Todde at 112, Sardinia boasted the oldest of them all.


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What makes Sardinia so hospitable to long life? Orroli's young and old alike debate the local secret that keeps people kicking. "It's the air!" insists the cousin of a 97-year-old woman who still makes pasta by hand. It's the homegrown vegetables, says a 96-year-old retired shepherd. Others contend it's the pure groundwater, the close familial bonds that ensure the elderly are cared for, the local penchant for an almost obsessive moderation in all things. Most seem to agree that a daily glass or two of red wine is indispensable. Frau, who turns 112 on Dec. 29, has a weakness for the locally produced Pecorino cheese and sweet Moscato wine. Though he has some trouble communicating, the retired miner wears his years well: on a recent afternoon, he was lounging in the shade of the village piazza, decked out in black pinstripe trousers, a sweater vest and a 1920s-style flat wool cap.

Agostino Vargiu, a restaurateur, has another hypothesis. "The food and the air probably help," Vargiu says. "But the point is that there's very little intermarrying with outsiders here. In Orroli we're all practically relatives. It's in the genes." That same logic — and the same propensity for long life in nearby towns — was what prompted Deiana, with his team of 25 Italian doctors and biologists, to launch a sweeping genetic study of every 100-plus person across the entire island. "You look at a Sardinian phone book, and you see there are relatively few last names," says Deiana, a researcher at the University of Sassari in northwest Sardinia. His project, which is partly funded by Duke University, is dubbed A Kent'Annos after an old Sardinian salute meaning "May you live to be 100." (The traditional reply is "And may you count the years.")

A previous study of elderly twins in Denmark concluded that longevity was mainly due to lifestyle choices and environmental factors, with the influence of genetics accounting for only about 25% of the phenomenon. But Deiana is convinced that genetics play a greater role, and he is determined to find the chromosomes on which longevity genes might reside, a potential step toward finding ways to medically prolong lives.

Deiana's research pokes at the eternal nature-nurture debate: Is it genetic destiny or a person's behavior that makes for a long life? Deiana — who turns 60 in February — has a personal interest in his research. His team is combing through church records in central Sardinia to try to confirm reports that a man who died in the early 1900s had reached the all-time-record age of 124. His name? Voche Deiana.