(CNN) — It’s a place of terraced lemon trees, a paradoxically warm mountain breeze, and a powerful fat-busting gene carried by a few lucky residents.
Limone sul Garda, a picturesque fishing village on the shores of Lake Garda in the northern Lombardy region of Italy, is an unusual destination with just 1,000 inhabitants.
It is the northernmost place in the world where lemons are grown naturally and enjoys an exceptionally mild climate, given its location at the foot of the Alps.
It is perhaps this mixture of factors that led the villagers to claim a secret “elixir” for a long and healthy life.
Many locals are apparently gifted with great digestive abilities that allow them to gorge on cream-filled cakes and fatty cold cuts without worrying about expanding in size or having heart problems.
These residents have what they call the “Limone gene”, which contains a special protein that breaks down lipids and keeps the blood flowing.
The “super human” Segala family who carry the gene.
For 40 years, the people of Limone sul Garda have been under scientific observation, with gene-carrying villagers being tested as 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 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 given our blood for recurrent tests, we have almost been completely bled,” he adds ironically.
He remembers the first time doctors gave him a sugary dose of whipped cream every two hours to monitor his blood.
“They were taking 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 instantly destroyed the fats without assimilating them. When night fell, I I almost fainted [due to blood loss],” he says.
However, while people like Segala 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 the residents of Limone have exceptionally low HDL cholesterol levels (in the range of 7-15 when it would normally be 40-60), which appears to be the result of a genetic mutation within the carrier protein.
“Having low HDL cholesterol – given that it is classified as ‘good’ cholesterol – is bad for you and leads to heart problems such as potential strokes, but in these premises it has a positive opposite effect “, he says.
“And while 99% of genetic mutations in proteins trigger disease and pathology, this one determined the absence of vascular disease in carriers.” Sirtori is currently studying the Limone gene to see how it might advance the fight against atherosclerosis.
He discovered that in Limone it is a dominant gene, present 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 Limone, an ancestor of Segala, who had been involved in an accident in Milan (hence the name of the A-1 protein Milano) and was was taken to hospital. The doctors who cured him were baffled by his astonishing blood results and launched a massive testing campaign in the village.
“I was only a child when my blood was tested for the first time, and doctors regularly come to monitor the behavior of our gene,” explains Giuliano Segala, Gianni’s son.
“The fact that I carry [the gene] gives me a kind of life insurance – I feel more protected health-wise and confident that I won’t have clogged arteries or die of a heart attack when I get old.”
Although he sometimes feels like a guinea pig, Giuliano, who is slim and fit, happily admits to indulging in fatty cold cuts, including bologna, salami and even lard, much like his grandmother, who takes care of herself and cooks for the whole family. . Young Segalas inherited the gene from her.
“I never have a stomach ache and I eat what I want. I love cutlet (veal cutlets breaded and fried), fried foods, salamis, and I also like to drink. I sleep like a baby,” says Giuliano. But just because he has this awesome gene doesn’t mean he always eats too much. He also exercises regularly, hiking with his dad on the peaks of the mountains to enjoy the spectacular views of the nearby Lake Garda.
Sirtori still hopes to analyze what happens if two carriers conceive a child. So far, either the father or the mother of a carrier has passed on the gene.
A powerful mix of factors
Limone’s lush location has been attracting tourists for centuries.
Sirtori says this genetic mutation and its associated health benefits are unique to Limone – and cannot even be found in neighboring villages. However, he is not interested in digging into why.
But others have. Antonio Girardi, a local hotelier who has traced the entire family tree of the transmission of the Limone gene 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 also why lemons have been growing in this northern region here for centuries,” he says.
“Or maybe it’s because of the amazing extra virgin olive oil we’ve all weaned off of and the fresh fish from the lake we eat.”
Since the Renaissance, wealthy families have flocked to the shores of Limone for holidays, breathing in the mild air of the Alps mixed with the scents of citrus fruits and enjoying the climate.
Girardi keeps a phone book with the contacts of all gene carriers in their 60s. Other residents are split between those born in Limone and those from neighboring towns or from abroad, drawn by the heavenly setting and sleepy vibe of Limone’s maze of cobbled lanes, passageways and white dwellings.
In the past, the villagers were either fishermen or mountain loggers who transported logs on donkeys to sell them to ships at the port. 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. Cozy beaches attract sunbathers and sailors in summer while hikers explore the tall, jagged cliffs that tower over the lake.
“These mountains act as natural shields protecting us from cold winds and capturing the sun, keeping temperatures consistently warm,” says Girardi.
“We have to thank this very pleasant and extraordinary micro-climate which has endowed our people with such a natural elixir.”