CAMPODIMELE, Italy — One of the young bloods in the piazza turned his face to the winter sun and breathed deep.
"It's the air, I tell you," declared 77-year-old Pasquale Masella.
His friend, who said he was 86, had other ideas. "The food," he insisted.
Researchers are paying close attention to such debates while trying to pinpoint the roots of the remarkable longevity among residents in Campodimele, a mountaintop village about 70 miles southeast of Rome.
Although the focus of the studies vary--from lifestyle to blood pressure to genetic traits--the findings add up to one conclusion: The hamlet seems a near-ideal union of the classic Mediterranean diet and healthy bucolic living.
More than 10% of the 900 people in the village are between 75 and 99 years old, the age of the oldest resident. Less than 5% of Italians as a whole and about 5.5% of Americans are in the same age bracket.
The studies of longevity--and especially continued good health with advancing years--carry an added significance in many Western nations because more people are living long lives.
"Campodimele is not unique, but I believe it's about as close as you can get to the perfect environment for a long life," said Dr. Alessandro Menotti, a researcher in Rome who studied cholesterol levels in the village in the mid-1980s.
Most people had a cholesterol reading around 100--well under the average level in most Western nations. A level of 200 is considered high.
Another researcher, Dr. Pietro Cugini, recently published a report on four years of monitoring the blood pressure of 94 elderly residents. The study, published in Chronobiology International, found that both blood pressure and its daily fluctuations were unusually low--both key markers of good health.
"No one--even the oldest people--is inactive, and they are able to get around by themselves. It was very, very impressive to see," said Cugini, who plans to continue research into how longevity is affected by life rhythms such as waking early and eating at regular times.
He also plans studies into a possible genetic link to the low blood pressure in the village.
In northern Italy, some residents of a similarly isolated village, Limone, were found to carry genes protecting them from fatty deposits that clog arteries.
But the main forces guiding the long lives in Campodimele appear to be the simple formula of good diet and exercise.
Nearly everyone works in gardens or cares for chickens and other small animals. Walking is the only way to get around. The village, surrounded by medieval walls, is a warren of narrow streets, alleys and stone steps.
The diet exemplifies the Mediterranean cuisine: very little meat, salt and butter; much pasta and raw vegetables; moderate amounts of wine. Few people in the village are heavy coffee drinkers--unlike those in the rest of Italy.
"We should look at Campodimele with respect. It should not be the exception, but the rule," said Franz Halberg, a University of Minnesota professor who is using data from the village as part of a global study on blood pressure and diet.
All the laboratory analyses and record-keeping bemuse the elders in Campodimele, which means "field of honey" in the local dialect.
"I don't know why they are spending all this time," said Pasquale Pannozzi, 83. "The answer is easy: This is a perfect spot. No stress. Who would want to die?"
Like many villagers, Pannozzi emigrated to Canada to find work as a young man. He returned a few years ago because he didn't want to spend his old age there.
Luigi Pecchia, 82, looked out over the valley of olive groves and deep green cypress trees. "Nearly everyone in my family lived into their 90s," he said. "It seems just natural."
"Hard work," said his uncle and the village oldster, 99-year-old Gerardo Pecchia. "Hard work keeps you young."
Some see more opportunities for keeping busy. The village's spreading reputation as a pocket of long and healthy lives is starting to draw tourists, mostly Italians, but some Germans and others who stop by for a look.
The region's annual almanac devotes an entire chapter to the reports and newspaper clippings about Campodimele's elderly residents.
The village has a new large restaurant, La Longevita (The Longevity), which serves a local dish as its specialty: wild peas over mushy pasta made from semolina. And the owner of the coffee shop off the main piazza is planning to spruce up his place for tourists.