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This island has the world's oldest people. Here's why

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 15/11/2017 Matthew Vickery
A resident of Seulo, Italy, leaves a home that is adorned with a black-and-white photo of a centenarian who previously lived there. © Matthew Vickery A resident of Seulo, Italy, leaves a home that is adorned with a black-and-white photo of a centenarian who previously lived there.

SARDINIA, Italy — Zelinda Paglieno, who turned 102 in October, offers sobering advice when asked what's the secret to her long and healthy life: "Two fingers width of red wine, and no more, at lunchtime every day.” 

“I’ve never smoked, but a little wine is good for you — and that’s something I still do now. We have very good grapes here,” she explained.

Paglieno’s age is no anomaly here in picturesque Sardinia, an Italian island in the Mediterranean that is home to the oldest people in the world, according to researchers on aging.

Sardinia is one of only five "Blue Zones" in the world identified as having residents who often reach age 90 or older. The other four are Okinawa (Japan), Nicoya (Costa Rica), Icaria (Greece) and the Seventh-day Adventist community in Loma Linda, Calif.

Paglieno, in her hometown of Esterzili, population 600, has three neighbors who are 100 or older.  

Despite her age, Paglieno remains in good health and happily navigates the hilly mountain village she’s lived in her whole life. She attributes her longevity to living off the land, good old-fashioned hard work, destino (destiny) and, of course, the local red wine known to be rich in polyphenols, which offer numerous health benefits.

Researchers studying centenarians in Sardinia’s remote mountain areas have a different explanation.

“Genetics is the main thing. The individuals living to these ages are almost always related,” said Pino Ledda, lead researcher of the Blue Zone Project in the region.

He points to charts on his computer about the nearby village of Seulo, a few miles from Esterzili on an adjacent mountainside, that had 20 centenarians over the past two decades.

“These areas are remote and have a history of isolation, so the gene pool is small — but why the genes here are leading to such long lives, that’s what we’re investigating,” he said. 

Seulo’s longevity milestones have been extensively documented and verified with records that stretch back to the 19th century, said Ledda, who now lives full time in the village. The village is regarded as the place where people live the longest in the world.

Throughout Seulo, older residents can be seen walking the hillside and uneven roads, slowly but steadily going about their business. Around them, large black-and-white pictures adorn the facade of 20 homes — portraits of the village’s centenarians since 1996.

Centenarians are cherished here, where each is made honorary mayor on his or her 100th birthday.

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Another aspect to life along the narrow streets of Seulo not seen elsewhere on earth: men living as long as women.

Of the 20 centenarians in the village during the past two decades, 11 were men.

Caterina Moi, 97, who prefers to go by her nickname Lelina, was married to the village's last male centenarian, Salvato Angelo, who died in August at 102. Her cousin just turned 103.

“I’m not old!” Moi exclaims after explaining she was born in 1920, a few years after her cousin and late husband.

She still hears well, can negotiate the steep steps to her first-floor home with relative ease and has no problem recounting past moments in her life.

Moi is also clear on why she believes she’s been graced with a long and healthy life — hard work.

“Since I was young I have always worked," she said. "Salvato was a hard worker also. There were no machines to help you. We had to do everything by hand. When it came to working I’ve never said, 'I don’t feel good, I can’t do this today,' I’ve just got on with what needed to be done."

The belief that hard work equals a long life echos throughout Sardinia. Researchers like Ledda are reluctant to agree but admit there’s a little truth to it. 

Centenarians in Seulo and Esterzili share something else. Their families have lived and worked off the land for generations, some working into their 90s.

“We ate what we grew. If you wanted vegetable soup one day, you had to go collect the ingredients yourself,” Moi said. “We didn’t need to think about eating healthy. We ate what we had, and it was healthy.”

Living off the land may provide an answer to why people here have good genes to live a long time, and researchers are studying stomach bacteria for clues. 

“We’re looking at the flora of the intestines and gut to see whether it has something to do with what people are eating, and whether it has to do with a diet specific to Sardinia,” Ledda said. “The centenarians are helping us with this, donating stool samples that can be analyzed, and we hope to soon have a better idea of what’s going on.”

Many residents like Moi and Paglieno are happy to assist, especially if it helps revitalize interest in their communities. More than half of the buildings in isolated Seulo and Esterzili are empty and falling into disrepair.

It’s also a chance to impart their own little piece of wisdom after a long, happy, and healthy life.

“Go live your life, work hard and be active — and a little wine,” Paglieno repeated. “I’ve already had mine for today. It’s one of the secrets, but just a little. Don’t abuse it.”

     

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