There is a village named Stocarreddo perched in the hills half a mile above Venice. It would seem like an unlikely place to make medical history, but as CBS News correspondent Allen Pizzey reports, the village hides a secret that mocks diabetes, hypertension and high blood pressure.
Ninety-five percent of the people there have the same surname: Bau.
They also tend to have excessive levels of cholesterol, triglycerides and blood sugar. But none of the usual related problems in spite of a diet that health-conscious Americans would never contemplate.
"We eat lots of things," Eugenio Bau said. "Steak, polenta, beans, cheese and, of course, wine."
Everyone in Stacarreddo takes it as a given that they can eat anything and everything they like and never have a problem – even though many have cholesterol counts and blood sugar levels well above the Italian average.
"There are cases here of cholesterol of 400," Liberato Bau said, "but there are no problems."
People do die, of course, but of causes unrelated to their diet.
Legend has it that about 800 years ago a wandering Dane pitched a tent here, and the gene pool has stayed isolated since then. It's a kind of DNA island.
Even those who leave to find work tend to come back here to get married.
"We just thought that the women here were better for us," Eugenio Bau explains. "Not because of health – we didn't even think of that. They were just better than others."
The Baus were discovered by a foundation studying rare diseases, and research indicates the key to their health may be genetic.
"It's not true that they didn't have disease," said Dr. Ures Hladnik of the Baschirotto Institute for Rare Diseases. "They have less of it."
The researchers think the contradictions could mean our obsession with cholesterol is off the mark.
"Maybe the enemy could someplace else, and maybe the Baus could show us one of those enemies," Dr. Hladnik said.
The Baus say they are pleased to be part of a study that could benefit others. They are also intensely proud of being a population that, in spite of what amounts to in-breeding, is both physically and socially strong.
There are tales of jealousy and rivalries, but in a town where there were once twenty Maria Baus living at the same time, gossip and mix-ups are to be expected. The wonder is that there isn't more discord. Perhaps that's another riddle for the geneticists to solve.
Or maybe it all comes down to the fact that when it comes to health, the Baus seem to have been dealt a winning hand.
Copyright 2006 CBS. All rights reserved.