(CNN) — It’s a place of terraced lemon groves, a paradoxically warm mountain breeze, and a powerful fat-destroying gene carried by a few lucky residents.
Limone sul Garda, a picturesque fishing village on the shores of Lake Garda in Italy’s northern Lombardy region, is an unusual destination with barely 1,000 inhabitants.
It is the most northerly place in the world where lemons are grown naturally and has an exceptionally mild climate, given its location at the foot of the Alps.
Perhaps this mix of factors has led to the village’s claims of a secret “elixir” for healthy, long life.
Many locals are apparently blessed with great digestive abilities that allow them to stuff themselves with cream-filled pies and fatty meats without worrying about growing waistlines or heart problems.
These residents have what they call the “limone gene,” which contains a special protein that destroys lipids and keeps the blood fluid.
The “superhuman” Segala family that carries the gene.
For 40 years, the people of Limone sul Garda have been under scientific observation, with villagers carrying genes tested like lab rats.
Of the 1,000 inhabitants, half were born and raised in Limone; and of those 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 smart – and all my kids wear it.
“Since the 1980s, we’ve been giving our blood away for recurring tests, we’ve almost bled out,” he adds wryly.
He remembers the first time the doctors made him take a sugary dose of whipped cream every two hours to check his blood.
“They took my blood after every bite, it was so sweet and greasy that I felt nauseous, but even though I ate a lot of it, my blood immediately destroyed the fats without assimilating them. By nightfall I almost passed out [due to blood loss],” he says.
While people like Segala may never have to worry about clogged arteries and blood clots, he says he lives 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 the locals of Limone called the “elixir” protein, naming it A-1 Milano. He says the residents of Limone have exceptionally low HDL cholesterol levels (between 7 and 15 when it should normally be 40-60), which appears to be the result of a genetic mutation in the protein carrier.
“Having low HDL cholesterol — as it’s classified as ‘good’ cholesterol — is bad for you and leads to heart problems such as possible stroke, but in these locals it has an inverse positive effect,” he says.
“And while 99% of genetic mutations of proteins cause disease and pathologies, this has determined the absence of vascular disease in carriers.” Sirtori is now studying the Limone gene to see how it could aid the fight against atherosclerosis.
He discovered that it is a dominant gene in Limone, found in the DNA of five-year-olds, young people and the elderly.
‘Free to eat what I 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 from Limone, an ancestor of Segala, who had been involved in an accident in Milan (hence the protein name A-1 Milano) and was taken to hospital. Doctors who cured him were stunned by his astonishing blood results and started a massive screening campaign in the village.
“I was just a child when my blood was first tested and the doctors come regularly to check how our gene is behaving,” says Giuliano Segala, Gianni’s son.
“The fact that I wear” [the gene] gives me a kind of life insurance — I feel more protected in health and confident that I won’t have clogged arteries or die of a heart attack when I get old.”
Even though he feels like a guinea pig at times, Giuliano, who is slim and fit, admits that he enjoys indulging in fatty cured meats, including mortadella, salami and even lard – just like his grandmother, who takes care of herself and the whole family cooks. The younger Segalas inherited the gene from her.
“I never have a stomachache and I eat what I feel like. I love chops (breaded and fried veal chops), fried foods, salami, and I also love to drink. I sleep like a log,” says Giuliano. But just because he’s a carrier of this amazing gene doesn’t mean he always overeats. He also exercises regularly, hikes mountain peaks with his father to enjoy the spectacular view. on the nearby Lake Garda.
Sirtori still hopes to analyze what happens when two carriers father a child. Until now, it has been either a carrier’s father or mother to pass on the gene.
A powerful mix of factors
Limone’s opulent location has attracted tourists for centuries.
Sirtori says this genetic mutation and its associated health benefits are unique to Limone — and not even in nearby villages. However, he is not interested in why that is so.
But others do. Antonio Girardi, a local hotelier who traces the entire family tree of Limone gene transfer back to the 18th century, believes that the environment, climate and natural products play a key role.
“It can be this warm climate all year round – we never have snow or ice, which is why lemons have been growing in this northern area for centuries,” he says.
“Or maybe it’s thanks to the extraordinary extra virgin olive oil we’re all weaned from, and the fresh fish from the lake we eat.”
Since the Renaissance, wealthy families have flocked to the Limone coast for vacations, breathing in the sweet Alpine air mixed with citrus scents and taking advantage of the climate.
Girardi keeps a phone book with the contacts of all gene carriers over 60. The other inhabitants are divided between those born in Limone and those from neighboring towns or abroad, lured by the paradisiacal setting and sleepy atmosphere of Limone’s maze of cobbled alleys and white corridors and dwellings.
In the past, the villagers were fishermen or mountain loggers who carried logs on donkeys to sell to the ships in the harbor. Today they all work in the tourism industry which attracts a lot of money.
Families stroll along the picturesque harbor and tourists visit the fishing museum. The cozy beaches attract sunbathers and sailing enthusiasts in summer, while hikers explore the rugged high cliffs that loom above the lake.
“These mountains act as natural shields protecting us from cold winds and trapping the sun, keeping temperatures consistently warm,” says Girardi.
“We have to thank this very pleasant, extraordinary microclimate that has given our people such a natural elixir.”