(CNN) – It’s a place of terraced lemon groves, a paradoxically warm mountain breeze and a powerful fat-killing gene carried by a few lucky residents.
Limone sul Garda, a picturesque fishing village on the shores of Lake Garda in the Lombardy region of northern Italy, is an unusual destination with just 1,000 inhabitants.
It is the northernmost place in the world where lemons are grown naturally and has an exceptionally mild climate, considering its location at the foot of the Alps.
Perhaps this mix of factors is what has led to the people’s claims of a secret “elixir” for a healthy and long life.
Apparently, many locals have great digestive abilities that allow them to stuff themselves with cream-filled pies and fatty sausages without worrying about expanding waistlines or heart problems.
These residents have what they call the “Limone gene,” which contains a special protein that destroys lipids and maintains blood fluid.
The Segala ‘super human’ family carrying the gene.
For 40 years, the people of Limone sul Garda have been under scientific observation, with gene-carrying inhabitants tested as laboratory rats.
Of the 1,000 inhabitants, half are Limones born and raised; and of these 500, 60 have the gene.
“The gene runs in my family,” says shopkeeper Gianni Segala, who jokes that the villagers are used as “blood bags” for scientists.
“My brothers and I, my mother, who is 96 and still very bright, and all my children wear it.
“Since the 1980s we have been donating our blood for recurrent tests, we have almost completely bled ourselves,” he adds wryly.
He remembers the first time doctors made him swallow a sugary dose of whipped cream every two hours to control his blood.
“They took my blood after every bite, it was so sweet and fatty that I felt nauseous, but even though I ate a lot of it, my blood instantly destroyed the fats without assimilating them. At night I almost passed out . [due to blood loss],” he says.
However, while people like Segala may never have to worry about clogged veins and blood clots, he says he leads a very normal life and is “not Superman”.
Cesare Sirtori, professor of clinical pharmacology at the Università degli Studi di Milano, leads the team that first identified what Limone locals call the “elixir” protein, calling it A-1 Milano. He says Limone’s people have exceptionally low HDL cholesterol levels (in the range of 7 to 15 when it should normally be 40 to 60) which appears to be the result of a genetic mutation within the protein carrier.
“Having low HDL cholesterol, given that it’s classified as ‘good’ cholesterol, is bad for you and leads to heart problems like possible strokes, but in these locales it has the opposite positive effect,” he says.
“And while 99% of protein genetic mutations trigger diseases and pathologies, this one has determined the absence of vascular diseases in the carriers.” Sirtori is now studying the Limone gene to see how it might improve the fight against atherosclerosis.
He discovered that Limone is a dominant gene, found in the DNA of five-year-old children, young adults and the elderly.
“Free to eat whatever you want”
Limone is a small fishing village on Lake Garda.
Jorg Greuel/Stone RF/Getty Images
The gene was first identified in the blood of a train driver Limone, Segala’s ancestor, who had been involved in an accident in Milan (hence the protein name A-1 Milano) and was transferred to the hospital The doctors who treated him were baffled by his surprising blood results and started a mass screening campaign in the village.
“I was only a child when my blood was tested for the first time, and the doctors come regularly to monitor how our genes behave,” says Giuliano Segala, Gianni’s son.
“The fact that I carry [the gene] it gives me a kind of life insurance: I feel more protected health-wise and I’m sure I won’t get clogged arteries or die of a heart attack when I’m old.”
Although he occasionally feels like a guinea pig, Giuliano, who is slim and fit, admits that he happily indulges in fatty meats like mortadella, salami and even lard, like the his grandmother, who takes care of herself and cooks for the whole family. . The younger Segalas inherited the gene from her.
“I never get a stomach ache and I eat whatever I want. I love it rib (breaded and fried beef chops), fries, salamis, and I also love to drink. I sleep like a baby,” Giuliano says. But just because he’s got this cool gene doesn’t mean he overeats. He also exercises regularly, climbing mountain tops with his dad to enjoy spectacular lake views next Guard.
Sirtori is still hoping to analyze what happens if two carriers conceive a child. So far it has been the parent of a carrier to pass on the gene.
A powerful mix of factors
Limone’s lush location has attracted tourists for centuries.
Sirtori says this genetic mutation, and its associated health benefits, is unique to Limone, and can’t even be found in nearby towns. However, he is not interested in finding out why this is.
But others have. Antonio Girardi, a local hotelier who has traced the entire family tree of the transmission of the Limone gene back to the 18th century, believes that the environment, climate and natural products play a key role.
“It can be this warm weather all year round – we never have snow or ice, and that’s also why lemons have been growing in this northern area here for centuries,” he says.
“Or maybe it’s thanks to the amazing extra virgin olive oil we’re weaned on and the fresh lake fish we eat.”
Since the Renaissance, wealthy families have flocked to Limone’s shores to spend their holidays, breathing in the sweet Alpine air mixed with citrus fragrances and benefiting from the climate.
Girardi keeps a phonebook with the contacts of all gene carriers in their 60s. The rest of the residents are divided between those born in Limone and those from neighboring towns or from abroad, attracted by the paradisiacal surroundings and the sleepy atmosphere of Limone’s maze of cobbled streets and corridors and white houses.
In the old days, the villagers were fishermen or mountain loggers who transported logs on donkeys to sell to the ships in the harbor. Today they all work in the tourism sector which brings in a lot of money.
Families stroll along the picturesque harbor and tourists visit the fishing museum. The inviting beaches attract bathers and yachtsmen in the summer while hikers explore the high jagged cliffs that rise above the lake.
“These mountains act as natural shields protecting us from cold winds and catching the sun, keeping temperatures consistently warm,” says Girardi.
“We must thank this pleasant and extraordinary microclimate that has given our people such a natural elixir.”