by Nils Osmar. January 8, 2023. Medical Disclaimer
The people in Acciaroli, a village in Italy, have close to zero rates of heart disease, Alzheimer’s and dementia – and an extraordinary number of them live to be over 100 years old.
The so-called “blue zones” get a lot of press, but the people in Acciaroli live longer in better health, and suffer less from the diseases of aging, than any other population anywhere else in the world. Their experience is not just a mild improvement in longevity; it blows all of the other “blue zones” out of the water.
According to a recent Boston University article, “About one in every 5,000 people in the United States is a centenarian—someone who’s 100 or more years old.” By comparison, more than one in ten of the people in Acciaroli live to be centenarians – five hundred times greater than the number in the United States.
What explains this extraordinary longevity? Researchers are still figuring it out. Genetics of course could be a factor. But the Acciarolin diet is also being looked at as a possible explanation.
Not just a Mediterranean diet
When I’ve brought up the Acciarolins – and their extraordinary health and longevity – and the almost total lack of Alzheimer’s and dementia in their community – in life extension forums, the response I often get is, “Of course, everyone knows the Mediterranean Diet is healthy.”
These comments are missing the point that the Acciarolins are not only 500 X more likely than Americans to live to be 100, but far more likely than people eating a more typical Mediterranean diet. According to this study, only 2.4 out of every 10,000 people in eating more typical Mediterranean diets live to be centenarians. In Acciaroli, the number is 1 in 10 – an almost unbelievable difference.
So what’s different?
The Acciarolin diet is similar in some respects to other Mediterranean diets. It’s rich in olives and olive oil, legumes and home-grown vegetables. But it also has some features which are very different.
The key staples in the Acciarolin diet are rosemary, anchovies and sardines. Their diets are omnivorous, based around both plant and animal foods. They raise their own chickens and rabbits, and do their own gardening. In addition to the food from the sea, they eat rabbit meat, poultry and eggs.
It’s in the blood… maybe
From an article called “Scientists ‘find key to longevity’ in Italian village where one in 10 people live beyond 100 years“:
…The research team analysed blood samples from more than 80 residents, and discovered extraordinarily low levels of adrenomedullin, a hormone that widens blood vessels. The levels of adrenomedullin were similar to those you would normally find in people in their 20s and 30s, the researchers said… The scientists found the hormone “in a much reduced quantity in the subjects studied and seems to act as a powerful protecting factor, helping the optimal development of microcirculation”, or capillary circulation.
… or in the diet
What causes their adrenomedullin to drop so low? Diet could be a factor. From an article in The Independent:
People in Acciaroli tend to eat locally caught fish, home-reared rabbits and chickens as well as olive oil and home-grown vegetables and fruit…. the locals all eat rosemary, which is thought to help improve brain function, and local varieties of the herb are set to be studied in a broader examination into longevity in the region.
“We found that they don’t have the sort of chronic diseases that we see in the US such as heart disease, obesity and Alzheimer’s,” Dr Maisel said.
Dr. Alan Maisel is a cardiologist at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, and is part of a joint U.S.-Italian research team launching a long-term study of the centenarians of Acciaroli.
According to an NPR article called “In One Italian Village, Nearly 300 Residents Are Over 100 Years Old” (quoting Maisel):
Out of those ones that are over 100, we’re not sure exactly, but we think about 20 percent have reached 110 years of age…
Everybody ate anchovies. Now, you know, I actually like anchovies on my Caesar salad, but I never thought they would help me live to be 110. But they seem to eat it with every meal…
Also, every meal they have the plant rosemary in almost everything they cook with. Whatever form they put it in has been shown in scientific studies to reduce cognitive and prevent cognitive dysfunction and some aging….
The genetic question
As I mentioned above, their longevity may have a genetic component. But it’s also possible that the effect is partially or completely due to their diet. They’re not living in an isolated village in which people never marry outsiders; they’re like any Italian village in that respect.
So I suspect that, rather than being genetic, the effect is epigenetic. Diets have been shown to switch certain genes on and off; that’s likely what theirs is doing.
Researching this article was a reminder of why it’s hard sometimes to get accurate information when we depend on online sources.
When researching it, I found some good articles published by NPR website, New York Times, Boston University and several other reputable sources. But some websites presented half-truths in a way designed to promote specific narratives.
Several plant-based or vegan websites, for example reported that the people in Acciaroli grow their own vegetables and use a lot of rosemary – both of which are true. But literally all them left out the fact that sardines and anchovies are the main other staples in the diets, and that the villagers also grow and eat rabbits and chicken, eat cheese, and eat the chickens’ eggs, because these elements don’t fit the “plant foods are good, animal foods are poison and will kill you” narrative promoted by the authors. Researching this topic was a reminder of how rampant confirmation bias is on the web.
What I’m doing
When I read about the Acciarolin diet a few years ago, I made some changes in my own diet, increasing my intake of seafood, with a special focus on anchovies and sardines – and adding rosemary to at least one meal a day. (I eat so much rosemary, I have to remember to use a little less when I’m making meals for friends who may not be as used to it as I am.)
Will my doing this increase my odds of living to 100 or 110? I suspect it will. But time will tell. I’m 70 at the moment and in good health; check in with me when I’m 100 or 110 and we can compare notes and idea.
Not medical advice
This article is not intended as, and should not be taken as, medical advice. I’m not advising that people eat any particular diet or take any particular supplement(s), just reporting on what I’m doing. Supplements, like medications and other interventions, can have side effects; I would encourage people to research both possible benefits and side effects before starting on any supplementation regimen, and consult with a medical professional about any issues which might have a medical component. See full Medical Disclaimer