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What's the secret to a long life? Meet the 'stubborn' oldest people of Italy

A fascinating new study reveals the personality traits of very old people who live in a region of Italy some call the birthplace of the Mediterranean diet.
by A. Pawlowski / / Source: TODAY

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Raise a glass to the resilient, stubborn, hard-working and optimistic longevity superstars of southern Italy.

A fascinating new study is revealing the psychology of people in their 90s and 100s who live in Cilento, a rural region some call the birthplace of the Mediterranean diet and one that’s famous for a high concentration of residents who reach very old age.

The elders were in worse physical shape than their younger family members — not surprising given their advanced years — but they scored “significantly higher” on tests designed to measure their mental health, researchers found.

When they interviewed the “oldest-old,” they had lots of traits in common. The nonagenarians and centenarians were positive, optimistic and hopeful despite traumatic events in their lives, like the deaths of their spouses or children. They worked hard all their lives and were still active in their old age. They loved their families, but were “controlling, domineering, and stubborn,” wanting things to be done their way — with one younger relative likening her father to “a dictator.”

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“I think it is well-deserved stubbornness,” Dr. Dilip V. Jeste, study co-author and director of the UC San Diego Center for Healthy Aging, told TODAY.

“Living to this age is a test of your sustainability…They feel that whatever they have done for the last 90 years, if they have been successful, why should they now change their attitude or lifestyle to meet somebody else’s needs?”

For the study, published in International Psychogeriatrics, co-author and Italian psychologist Anna Scelzo interviewed 29 Cilento residents ranging in age from 90 to 101, and asked them about their life histories, losses, values and beliefs. She also talked with 51 of their younger relatives to get their impressions of the elders’ personalities.

Study participants and residents of the Cilento region of southern Italy.
Two of the study participants and residents of the Cilento region of southern Italy.University of Rome La Spienza

Here are some of the findings and lessons:

The elders have better mental well-being than younger people:

It’s a bit of a paradox that other studies have also found: As people get older, their physical health declines, but their mental health improves. Jeste calls it the wisdom of aging.

“When you are young, there’s a lot of peer pressure and you always feel that you’re not doing as well as some other peer,” he said.

“When you are older… the expectation changes — expectations of other people and expectation of self. You accept yourself better.”

They’re full of resilience and optimism:

The elders went through every stress possible — war, depression, drought, migration, major illnesses, deaths of loved ones — yet they were still full of hope and convinced things would work out for the best. "Life is what it is and must be faced," one of the elders said. "I am always ready for changes. I think changes bring life and give chances to grow," another added.

These traits of positivity are about 30-40 percent genetically inherited, but that means the rest is within a person’s control, Jeste said.

Study participants and residents of the Cilento region of southern Italy.
Two of the study participants and residents of the Cilento region of southern Italy.University of Rome La Spienza

Work is important, so is a purpose in life

These rural families worked hard much of their lives cultivating their land, with work providing a sense of higher purpose and meaning to life, the study notes. It may be an important lesson to people imagining retirement as decades of leisure. Taking it easy may be enjoyable at first, but it may not make you happy after a while, Jeste said.

“When you are 65, you still have 20 to 30 years of life left in the U.S. today. Wow, so that’s a long time. It’s like going from 25 to 55,” he noted. “There’s still a lot of life left in old age and you want to make good use of that.”

They feel loved by family and friends

The elders were very close with their families and continued to be socially active. They often lived with relatives and frequently had visitors. Having social support is one of the most important things you can do to live happily, Jeste said.

“(When) you surround yourself with people you like, it’s like ‘Cheers’ — you go where everybody knows your name. That makes you feel at home, makes you feel you’re wanted,” he said. “You look forward to seeing them. You can share your stresses and joys.”

Social support doesn’t have to mean having 100 friends, Jeste said. Two good friends or relatives can be meaningful for some people.

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