Longevity: Journey into the blue zone

We look into the science of the blue zone, regions where people live extremely long lives.

In this episode of TechKnow, we explore the regions where people enjoy a longer life of good health, regions known as Blue zones.

Acciaroli is one such region. It is part of what is known as the Cilento Coast of Italy, situated 140 km south of Naples. It has a high concentration of centenarians living there.

According to researchers from Rome’s Sapienza University and the University of California, San Diego, one in every 60 of its residents is at least 90 years old.

This Mediterranean region has become known for good health supplemented by diet rich in fresh produce, pasta, olive oil, and rosemary.

Dr Salvatore Di Somma, who is leading the study, explains that the first time blood samples from the centenarians were tested, the scientists discovered “proteins linked to longevity in these subjects they never saw in the millions of samples.”

Researchers also observed the centenarians’ strong cognitive abilities, showing almost no signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. This was measured in terms of what is called “functional status”, the ability to prepare food for themselves and move about on their own.

One-hundred-year-old Giovanna Ruggiero, like most centenarians in the study, moves around easily. 

Scientists say it is unusual for anyone over 90 to walk without a cane or a walker. Perhaps more significant to the team of scientists is that Giovanna does not wear glasses, nor does she need a hearing aid.

The idea behind the research project is to determine the factors that contribute to the centenarians’ good health, and if they can be replicated medically or through diet and lifestyle.

What is the secret to Italy’s centenarians?

In the six-month pilot study, scientists took a close look at a select group of 81 centenarians and their families. They focused on their physical and cognitive functionality as well as lifestyle, family, diet, and genetics.

While the centenarians showed some of the typical signs of ageing, what makes them unique, according to researchers, is those factors did not result in heart disease.

“In terms of pathology, these people have cardiovascular risk, in terms of hypertension, they seem to be protected with something that is going to interfere with the involvement of the heart,” says Dr Di Somma.

German Biochemists Andreas Bergmann and Ute Kilger began to unravel the mystery by measuring specific biomarkers in the blood of the subjects in the study. They supplied a test for a hormone called adrenomedullin which helps predict the health of the microcirculatory system – the vast blood supply network that supports the body’s organs.

“This blood told us that microcirculation is much better in these centenarians than you would expect … it seems the microcirculation of these people has never aged,” says Dr Kilger.

Their diet, coupled with a close community network and a tight-knit family support system, also contributed to the centenarians’ longevity.

“There is of course psychological factors that you live in a social environment, that you live with your family, that you talk to people every day, that you train your brain … all these factors … are important too,” says Kilger.

Having survived two world wars, famine and poverty, the centenarians are a resilient group. Mental health experts such as Anna Scelzo are studying the impact of psychological factors on the longevity of this unique population.

Interestingly, she observed the younger generation is more prone to suffering from depression, higher stress levels and panic attacks. “Centenarians don’t even know what is a panic attack,” says Scelzo.