Whether it’s a 79-year-old zipping along on his scooter, an 83-year-old chasing her hens up a hill, or a 100-year-old doing yard work, the people of a small village in Italy know how to live a long life and remain healthy throughout, with virtually no heart disease.
What’s the secret of this town that still looks much the way it did in the Middle Ages? Let’s take a look at what longevity researchers say.
Situated in the middle of the Aurunci mountains in central Italy is the ancient hamlet of Campodimele.
The signpost to the small village welcomes visitors with a proud claim: ‘Il Villagio della Longevita’ which translates to, The Village of Longevity. Yet scientists refer to Campodimele as The Village of Eternal Youth, while a journalist who spent a year there calls it The Village of Eternity.
No matter which name you prefer, the town’s longevity statistics aren’t up for debate. In 2009, the average life expectancy of both men and women in this quaint Italian village was a robust 95 years of age, and there are quite a few people who become centenarians.
Five Factors Contribute to a Healthy Old Age
In the 1980’s and 90’s scientists took an interest in this community and published several studies, including one by the distinguished doctor and scientist Pietro Cugini from the University of Rome.
Dr. Cugini pointed to five reasons that account for their longevity.
The first is an active social structure.
Campodimele is a close-knit community with an active church and plenty of opportunities for socializing, encouraged by a mild climate and the pure, oxygen-rich mountain air.
“The elderly person is never alone,” remarks Dr. Cugini, “but has a life synchronized with that of others as in one big family.”
Secondly, Dr. Cugini also points to a strong synchronization with geophysical cycles; a community whose rhythms are dictated by its agricultural and culinary year. For instance, they get up at sunrise and retire at sunset, eat at regular times and enjoy a local, seasonal eating pattern.
A third factor is physical activity, of which they get plenty, well into old age. Most are farmers and are kept fit by the steep terrain and maze of narrow cobblestone alleys separating the village from their plots of land and olive trees, as well as working the land itself.
“No one – even the oldest people – is inactive, and they are able to get around by themselves. It was very, very impressive to see,” adds Dr. Cugini.
Fourth, the doctor’s research, as well as that of fellow scientist, Dr. Alessandro Menotti, also points to a genetic factor, an enzyme, which allows elderly villagers to enjoy very low cholesterol levels, normal blood pressure, and limited fluctuations in blood pressure throughout the day. Dr. Cugini thinks this enzyme could account for 30 percent of their life expectancy.
One 83-year-old, however, was dismissive of the various scientists who study the community, saying, “I don’t know why they are spending all this time. The answer is easy: This is a perfect spot. No stress. Who would want to die?”
Villagers and scientists may disagree about these factors that seemingly account for the longevity of the people of Campodimele, but when it comes to the fifth and final factor—diet— everyone is in agreement.
Simple, Wholesome, Nutritious Food
Tracey Lawson, author of the book, A Year in the Village of Eternity, summarizes the Campodimele diet saying, nearly all food “is produced and eaten just as it has been for hundreds of years: on land fed by natural animal fertilizers and without the use of pesticides.
“It’s picked daily or weekly by hand and eaten within hours of harvesting, so retaining most of its vitamin and mineral content. And it’s prepared quickly and simply – grilled, fried, boiled or eaten raw.”
She goes on to describe how nothing is wasted. If there are leftovers from the seasonal harvest then they’re preserved. For example, vegetables are bottled in oil or vinegar and fruit is turned into jam.
Dr. Cugini describes the diet as hyper-Mediterranean. They eat lots of beans, other legumes, and very little meat, apart from wild boar. Beef and butter are scarce, while fish is eaten regularly as is lean chicken. Eggs and homemade corn bread are also on the menu. Salt intake is relatively low as is the drinking of coffee, beer and hard liquors. The diet is rich in olive oil and includes regular consumption of locally made red wine.
A typical meal might begin with an egg-free pasta dressed in oil and vegetables followed by a main course of fish or chicken cooked in olive oil, with a side dish of wilted leafy greens, peppers or eggplant.
The main dish is always followed by a simple salad – picked just minutes beforehand – to cleanse the palate. Then comes cheese from mountain goats followed by fresh fruit. Moderate amounts of red wine accompany the meal.
After a year with the villagers, Tracey Lawson writes: “I came to Campodimele hoping I might learn how to live longer, but discovered something much more important – how to live well.”
Sadly, the story of the village is not ending happily.
It’s been only ten years since Ms. Lawson wrote those words, but modernization – or Americanizzazione, as the locals call it – which they resisted for so long, finally encroached on their way of life.
The whole village was given a modern makeover—adding many modern conveniences— which only seems to have driven the residents away. Its population has dwindled from 671 in 2010 to just 450 today. The youth left to look for work elsewhere and the old folk moved to nearby towns. Rural life has nearly disappeared and the social buzz of a once thriving hamlet has gone.
None of this takes away from all the factors that gave rise to their longevity, however.
While we may not want to— or be able to— emulate the simple lifestyle of the Campodimeleans, we can still incorporate many of their secrets for longevity into our own lives.
As the noted University of Minnesota scientist professor Franz Halberg said, Campodimele “should not be the exception, but the rule.”
- A Year in the Village of Eternity by Tracey Lawson, Bloomsbury 2011