The people who live in Cilento, a mountainous coastal area just south of the Salerno Bay in southern Italy, live to remarkable ages, but how is this possible? Not only do they live longer lives, they retain more of their cognitive abilities and suffer fewer heart diseases than the rest of us in their later days. This autumn, together with the super-pro health coach and yoga instructor Charlotte Fredriksson, I lead a trip with Go Active Travel to the small village of Acciaroli where more than one in ten inhabitants are over one hundred years old.
According to the Italian statistics agency, ISTAT, the latest calculations (for 2016) show that there are 183 hundred-year-olds living in the area, 143 women and 40 men. Average life-expectancy in Cilento is also off the charts, 92 years for women and 85 years for men. In the village of Acciaroli there were 81 centenarians within its population of 700. For comparison, take Sweden for example, where the average is about 20 centenarians per 100,000 inhabitants. For the skeptics, this phenomenon is not the result of all the young people moving away or because Acciaroli is some sort of hot spot for wealthy pensioners. Those who live there have lived most of their lives there as poor fishermen and had to pay with sweat for every lire(local currency) earned.
In recent years, scientists from all over the world have been drawn to Cilento and Acciaroli to try to understand the secret of healthy aging, which means the area is on its way to qualifying as a scientifically confirmed blue zone, alongside the Japanese island of Okinawa, the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, Ogliastra in eastern Sardinia and the Greek island of Ikaria. As in the other blue zones, there is hardly just one reason why so many people are over 100 years old. For a long life, a combination of healthy food, physical activity, stable social networks and a sense of meaning in life are all needed.
While all of this characterizes life in Acciaroli it is the food which stands out in their society. Cilento is an ancient cultural land that has long been identified as the cradle of the Mediterranean. You may have heard of the American biologist and nutritionist Ancel Keys. In recent years, he has often been criticized for his role in 1960’s of pointing out fat and cholesterol as the major health hazard while ignoring the risks of sugar. That analysis is largely wrong today, and has been abandoned, but this should not obscure Keys’ perhaps most important contribution, putting the traditional Mediterranean diet on the map.
Ancel’s launchpad for the diet was Cilento in the 1950s after having been struck by the high proportion of centenarians. After retirement, he lived for 28 years in Pioppi, a neighboring town of Acciaroli and left just before his 100th birthday to move home to Minneapolis where he died a year later, just before his 101th birthday. Most certainly there are aspects of Ancel’s work that can be discussed however, Ancel Keys did in the end live a long life after eating a Mediterranean diet and growing his own vegetables in his garden.
In addition to the traditional ingredients of the Mediterranean diet such as vegetables, legumes, fruits, whole grains, seeds, fish, olive oil and some red wine, the herbs have attracted the most interest in Cilento. Just like on the Greek island of Ikaria, they grow wild in the mountains and an analysis has shown that people have traditionally picked upwards of 90 different sorts, of which at least 40 had medical effects and were used extensively in cooking. Rosemary has been particularly pointed out as it grows abundantly in the mountains around Acciaroli. In recent years, researchers have discovered that healthy 100-year-olds in Cilento are characterized by very good blood circulation. This is interesting because the body’s ability to balance the flow of the many miles of microscopic blood vessels that traverse us plays a central role in regulating blood pressure but also our ability to regulate body temperature, keep the skin elastic, heal wounds, counteract tumors and keep us free of toxins. Interesting findings now indicate that bioactive substances in rosemary and other herbs could be an important explanation that contribute to a good and balanced microcirculation. Look at that! A great reason to go to Acciaroli to learn more! Cilento is, by the way, a forgotten part of Italy by most but is located just a few notches south of the popular Amalfi Coast, only here you can find temple ruins.
The awe of history here is slightly stunning. It was here that the founder of Rome, Aeneas, is said to have made shore first in western Italy after the battle of Troy, and it is also said to be here along the coast that the sirens called on Odysseus with their songs. Whether it is the food, the herbs or the genes is yet to be completely determined, but one thing is for sure, there is certainly lust for life here. Researchers even report an unusually active sex life far up in the years among the old in Cilento.
Henrik Ennart together with Niklas Ekstedt is the author of the recently published book Happy Food 2.0. Currently only available in Swedish however you can get their first book Happy Food in english on amazon here.