When Elena Orrù turned 100 in July, she got the obligatory birthday cake, a salute from the mayor and write-ups in the local press. But Orrù, who'd just broken her hip, also received a bedside visit (and a red rose) from the village elder. No one knows better than 111-year-old Giovanni Frau that passing the century mark is reason to celebrate. But these two most senior of citizens also know that reaching your second century in Orroli a small town in the parched interior of the Italian island of Sardinia doesn't necessarily turn heads. When Frau hit triple digits in 1990, just down the road Vincenza Orgiana was approaching her 106th birthday. Over the past decade five other Orroli natives (since deceased) have reached 100 with two more set for their centennial next year. All this in a town of just 2,748 people.
Orroli's young and old alike debate the local secret that keeps people kicking. "It's the air! The air!" insists a cousin of one of the town's eldest. It's the homegrown vegetables, says a 96-year-old. For others, it's the pure groundwater or fresh milk, the constant care of relatives or near obsessive moderation in all things. Most seem to agree that a daily glass or two of red wine is indispensable. Frau who is officially the third oldest person in the world has a weakness for the locally produced pecorino cheese and sweet Moscato wine.
But Agostino Vargiu, who serves up those same ingredients at his downtown restaurant, 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 noted propensity for long life in nearby towns prompted molecular biologist Luca Deiana 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. The project dubbed A Kent'Annos after an old Sardinian salute meaning, "May you live to be 100" confirmed that the island has the world's highest documented percentage of people who have passed the century threshold. Of 1.6 million Sardinians, there are at least 220 who 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.
A previous Danish study of elderly twins concluded that longevity was mainly due to lifestyle choices and environmental factors, with genetics accounting for only about a quarter of the picture. But Deiana is convinced that genes play a greater role, and he's determined to find the chromosomes on which "longevity genes" might reside, which could be the first step to medically extending life expectancy. His team of 25 Italian doctors and biologists, partially funded by Duke University in the U.S., has begun focusing on proteins within the Y chromosome transmitted from father to son after noting that the number of 100-plus males and females was virtually equal in the more genetically homogeneous regions of Sardinia. Typically, there are four female centenarians to every male one.
While Deiana hardly discounts external factors, his research inevitably pokes at the eternal debate between nature and nurture: is it "genetic destiny" or a person's own behavior that makes for a long life? Like virtually all the over-100 crowd, Frau is convinced that his lifestyle has helped but that his longevity is ultimately a gift from God. Though he has trouble communicating with strangers, the retired miner was wearing his years well on a recent afternoon sporting black pinstripe trousers, a sweater vest and a 1920s flat wool cap as he lounged in the summer shade in the village piazza. And while Deiana who turns 60 in February pursues the science behind longevity, he also has a personal interest in the research. His team is combing through church records in central Sardinia to try to confirm reports that a man who died early last century had reached the all-time record age of 124. His name? Voche Deiana.