The Cilento region of southern Italy is home to a unique group of people. In the rural villages of the area, between the mountains and the Mediterranean Sea, lives a particularly remarkable group. They spend their days outdoors, eating fish, smoking cigarettes, and drinking wine. A good many of them are overweight. Despite lifestyles that might seem unhealthy on the surface, an astounding number of them live to be quite old — many over the age of 90.
But it isn’t just good genes and that world-famous Mediterranean diet that account for their extraordinary health and longevity, a team of international researchers report in the journal International Psychogeriatrics on Tuesday.
In the study, the researchers from Italy, Switzerland, and the United States highlight a handful of psychological traits that play a significant role in the ability of these people to maintain their mental health into old age. Even though they have worse physical health than their younger neighbors, these elderly Italians score significantly higher on measures of mental health.
“Exceptional longevity was characterized by a balance between acceptance of and grit to overcome adversities along with a positive attitude and close ties to family, religion, and land, providing purpose in life,” the researchers write.
In their study, the team assessed the mental well-being of 29 people (19 women and 10 men) between age 90 and 101 from nine different villages: Acciaroli, Casal Velino, Futani, Vallo della Lucania, Montano Antilia, San Mauro la Bruca, Gioi, Stella Cilento, and Sessa Cilento. In addition, they asked pariticipants to describe their personal history in terms of traditions, culture, values, trauma, grief, losses, immigration, and personality.
The results indicated robust trends among the very old residents of Cilento. All of them exhibited high levels of mental well-being and low levels of depression and anxiety — all of which is rooted in their sense of purpose and relationship to their surroundings, the researchers note.
“The group’s love of their land is a common theme and gives them a purpose in life. Most of them are still working in their homes and on the land. They think, ‘This is my life and I’m not going to give it up,’” said Anna Scelzo, first author of the study with the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse in Chiavarese, Italy, in a statement.
In this study, mental health did not appear to be dependent on physical health, as many of the study subjects exhibited signs of poor physical health and low levels of physical fitness. This conclusion echoes previous, paradoxical research demonstrating that many old people have greater levels of mental well-being than younger people — despite having worse levels of physical health.
The rising popularity of transhumanism and bioengineering efforts to increase human longevity has shifted the attention of scientists toward maintaining physical health, but studies like this one are a reminder that mental health is perhaps even more important to staying alive. After all, what’s the good of a healthy body without the drive to maintain it? So, while body hackers attempt to use parabiosis or telomere lengthening to try to live forever, they may want to take a cue from these very old Italians, who have figured out how to live happily as their physical bodies decline.