Centenarian sister helps Sardinian siblings set world record

Nine Sardinians were recognized Wednesday as the oldest living siblings, with a combined age of 818. The eldest sister celebrated her 105th birthday today.

Could the rugged Mediterranean island of Sardinia harbor the secret to a long life? Experts increasingly think so.

The island has long had a reputation for longevity, with one of the highest rates of centenarians in the world. Now that reputation has been further bolstered with the discovery of nine elderly brothers and sisters who have a combined age of 818 years.

The Melis siblings were officially recognized this week by Guinness World Records as the world’s oldest living siblings.

It can surely only be a matter of time before “The Sardinian Diet” becomes the next big thing among Hollywood stars and well-heeled health enthusiasts.

All but two of the siblings live in the village of Perdasdefogu in a mountainous region of the island known as the Barbagia, which in the past was famed for banditry, feuding, and kidnapping.

Its unforgiving terrain has repelled outside invaders since pre-Roman times, ensuring a distinct gene pool that appears to have passed on longevity from generation to generation.

The Melis family ascribes its extraordinarily long lives to plenty of exercise – walking up and down precipitous slopes to feed its sheep and goats, for instance – as well as a healthy diet based around bread, cheese and pasta, all locally produced.  

Family members speak particularly highly of minestrone soup, which is filling but low in fat and full of greens. The red wine they drink is unusually high in antioxidants, experts have found.

Being surrounded by around 150 children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren also keeps them young, they say.

The oldest of the siblings, Consolata, celebrated her 105th birthday today, while the “baby” of the family, Mafalda, is a comparatively sprightly 78 years old.

“In my day women had to do all the domestic work, going to the standpipe to get water and to the river to wash the clothes. My grandchildren have washing machines and vacuum cleaners so when they say 'I’m so stressed,' I just can’t understand it,” Consolata told Italy’s daily Corriere della Sera.

One of the sisters, Claudina, 99, keeps in shape by walking to and from church every day, while a brother, Adolfo, 89, still works in a bar in the village and tends vegetables in his garden.

It was a family friend who approached Guinness claiming that the Melis siblings were probably the oldest in the world.

Guinness verified the claim in conjunction with the Gerontology Research Group in the US and announced the finding this week.

“The Mediterranean lifestyle is always held up as being beneficial to a long, healthy life, and Italians in particular feature prominently in the list of supercentenarians and centenarians,” said Craig Glenday, editor-in-chief for Guinness World Records.

“Seven out of the 70 people alive over the age of 110 are Italian, for example, and the world's second-oldest living person is the Italy-born Dina Manfredini, who was born in Emilia-Romagna," Mr. Glenday noted, adding that Ms. Manfredini now lives in the US.

“With all longevity records, genes and lifestyle are paramount, but luck plays a big part – avoiding accidents and falls, and so on – so to have such a large number of living siblings with an average age of more than 90 years is incredibly rare.” 

The secret of Sardinians’ long life is being studied by a scientific project called AKeA – an acronym for “A kent’ annos,” a traditional toast in the Sardinian language which means “May you live to 100 years.”

Scientists believe genetics play a key role in Sardinians’ longevity – the same surnames crop up again and again in the list of long-living islanders, said Luca Deiana, a professor of clinical biochemistry from the University of Sassari.

The only other region in the world that can match Sardinia for the proportion of centenarians is the island of Okinawa in Japan.

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