If there’s one thing the remote mountain village of Perdasdefogu needs to ensure it always has a steady supply of, it’s birthday candles. Already this year, 500 have been needed to decorate the birthday cakes of five residents who turned 100.
Each milestone usually means a celebration involving the entire town. The mayor, Mariano Carta, presents a medal to the centenarian, who more often than not can recall details of their life over the past century with remarkable lucidity.
“Whenever a citizen celebrates a 100th birthday, it feels as if I have a piece of history in front of me, a living monument,” said Carta. “Here are people who tell small stories that are entwined with a bigger story. I feel very lucky.”
Some of that history is reflected in the 16 photos of centenarians, either living or deceased, that line the walls on either side of the town’s main thoroughfare. There is Vittorio Palmas, who survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during the second world war and died in 2019, aged 105. There is also a mural dedicated to the town’s longest-surviving citizen to date – Consolata Melis, who died in 2015, aged 108.
Consolata was the eldest in the family of nine brothers and sisters who shot to fame in 2012 after entering the Guinness World Records as the oldest living siblings on earth, with a combined age at the time of 818.
Her sister, Claudina, died in 2016, aged 103, followed by Maria, who died at 100, and Antonio at 97. Another of the siblings, Concetta, turned 100 in February.
A stone block at the entrance to Perdasdefogu, a town tucked high up in the rugged mountains of south-eastern Sardinia and accessible only by a narrow, winding road, celebrates the Melis siblings with the message: “Perdasdefogu, world record for family longevity”.
The next of the siblings hoping to become a centenarian is 98-year-old Adolfo. The three youngest in the family – Vitalio, 90; Fida, 89, and Mafalda, who at 87 is called “the baby”, live in the Sardinian capital of Cagliari.
Their parents were Francesco Melis, who served during the first world war, and Eleonora Mameli, who received a medal from Benito Mussolini’s fascist government in 1939 for giving birth to so many children. There were 11 altogether; two didn’t make it to adulthood.
But the longevity streak is not limited to the Melis family. Perdasdefogu is currently home to eight centenarians – four men and four women – in a population of 1,740. Ten more citizens could turn 100 within the next couple of years.
Across Italy, the number of people living to 100 or more is rising fast. As of 1 January 2021, there were 17,935 centenarians, up from 14,456 in 2019 and 11,000 in 2009, according to figures from Istat, the national statistics agency.
Sardinia has been identified as one of five regions in the world that have high concentrations of centenarians. There are 534 people who are 100 or older, or 33.6 for every 100,000 inhabitants.
Perdasdefogu is unique in the sense that the number of centenarians in a town of its size is 13 times the national average.
“There is of course the fresh air and the good food, but I believe one of the reasons for their longevity is their approach to stress,” said Luisa Salaris, a demographics professor at the University of Cagliari. “They were born 100 years ago and certainly didn’t have an easy life – there would have been hunger and war. But they are people who have managed to adapt – if there’s a problem, they solve it quickly.”
It wasn’t so long ago that Adolfo Melis was serving drinks at the bar opened by his father in 1958.
Sitting on a bench in the square next to the bar, Adolfo’s eyes light up as he recalls the chatter and laughter around the dinner table among his brothers and sisters.
“The table was slightly longer back then,” he said. “We all got on well, there was rarely any arguing … maybe this is one of the reasons why we have lived so long.”
Family congeniality aside, Adolfo, who worked on farms in his younger years, is convinced that the main reason for their longevity is diet. Food was scarce – a year before Consolata was born, there were protests against food shortages in Perdasdefogu – but their father was the first in the town to create a vegetable garden.
Before Perdasdefogu was connected to the water mains in the early 1960s, water for the garden had to be carried from a well.
“Everything we ate came from the garden,” said Adolfo. “What you put into your stomach is so important – if you abuse the stomach, it doesn’t resist.”
There is plenty of meat in the local diet, as well as some fish (the sea is about an hour’s drive away), but the trick is to “eat little, but genuine food”, according to Adolfo.
He said his family were always physically active, especially having worked in agriculture. But they were also businesspeople. “Three of my sisters had shops,” he added.
At 102, Bonino Lai is still the president of Perdasdefogu’s football team. He lives with his wife, Elena, and one of his two daughters in a modest apartment. An office worker before he retired, Bonino said it is the simple activities that keep him going. “Reading, walking, playing cards … the simple things are the best things.”
Perdasdefogu is remote and most of the population elderly, but that doesn’t mean the town is not lively. It hosts several cultural events throughout the year, including a literary festival. Books are believed locally to have played a part in residents’ longevity. Next to the photo of Vittorio Palmas, who is holding a copy of Gabriel Garcia’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, is a sign that says: “Reading keeps you alive”.
The literary festival is organised by Giacomo Mameli, a distant cousin of the Melis siblings who still works as a journalist at aged 80.
At the most recent event in July, Antonio Brundu, 103, was in the front row to listen to a discussion with Jonathan Hopkin, a politics professor at the London School of Economics. Other elderly people are equally active – Vittorio Lai, 99, still drives and hunts for wild boar.
“Our environmental conditions play a crucial role,” said Mameli. “We live in a place where the air is clean. Our centenarians were in continuous movement in a healthy environment – collecting firewood or working on their allotments.
“Another important factor is that Perdasdefogu conserves the sense of community. The elderly still live at home and not in care homes. Sociality is so important because if you have good social contacts, you remember, talk, and evaluate … you live well.”