Italy World's Healthiest Country

August 14, 2017

The Italian economy may not be in great shape, but Italians certainly are, according to a ranking of the world’s healthiest nations.

The Bloomberg Global Health Index ranks Italy top of 163 countries, followed by Iceland, Switzerland, Singapore and Australia.

While Italian babies can expect to live into their eighties, at the other end of the scale in Sierra Leone, life expectancy is just 52.

The index gave countries a ‘health score’ based on metrics such as life expectancy and causes of death, and then took into account ‘health risk penalties’. These included high blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol, as well as the prevalence of obesity, alcoholism, smoking and childhood malnutrition. It also considered environmental factors such as carbon emissions and access to drinking water.

The US, which has one of the highest obesity rates in the world, is in 34th place, with a health grade of 73.05 out of 100.

The key to Italy’s good health?

Despite a struggling economy with low growth and high unemployment, especially among young people, Italians are in far finer fettle than Americans, Canadians and Brits, who have higher blood pressure and cholesterol and poorer mental health.

Could the Mediterranean diet be a critical factor? Bloomberg notes that Italians enjoy a diet rich in fresh vegetables, fish, lean meats and olive oil, and that there’s an “excess of doctors” in the country.

When it comes to living a very long, active life, scientists believe one place in Italy may hold the secret. The Cilento peninsula, south of Naples and the Amalfi Coast, has an unusually high number of sprightly centenarians.

Researchers found that residents of one village, Acciaroli, where more than one in 10 of the population is over 100 years old, had remarkably good blood circulation. Though an exact reason has yet to be determined, scientists believe it could be a combination of the residents’ healthy diet based on vegetables, herbs and fish, being physically active and genetic factors that have developed over centuries.

Rosamond Hutt. "Italy may have a struggling economy but its people are the healthiest in the world". World Economic Forum, 18 Apr 2017.

Reconstruction of a Herculaneum Resident

July 11, 2017

The exploded skull of a man who died in the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius nearly 2,000 years ago has been pieced together, giving scientists a unique opportunity to capture the ancient face using 3D imaging.

It is the first real-life reconstruction of the features of a victim of the volcanic disaster who lived in the ill-fated seaside town of Herculaneum.

The appearance is that of a typical southern European who may have been wealthy and educated because he was 50 years old when he died — an unusual milestone for the time.

He was one of 350 casualties discovered frozen in time, buried under volcanic ash in Herculaneum.

Every single resident perished instantly when the southern Italian town was hit by a 500° centigrade pyroclastic hot surge in AD 79.


The excavation of Pompeii, the industrial hub of the region, and Herculaneum, a small beach resort, has given unparalleled insight into Roman life.

"This is the beginning of what we're hoping will be an on-going project to reveal the faces of the ancient Roman inhabitants of Herculaneum and Pompeii", said Italian 3D graphic designer Gianfranco Quaranta who is leading the initiative as part of the Association for Research and Education in Art, Archaeology and Architecture (AREA3).

Janet Tappin Coelho and Phoebe Weston. "EXCLUSIVE: Scientists piece together the exploded skull of a 50-year-old man, who died in 500°C heat from the Mount Vesuvius eruption 2,000 years ago, to reveal his face for the first time". – Science & Tech, 06:14 EDT, 21 June 2017.

Complex Spread of Indo-European Languages

June 22, 2017

In this recent post, I talked about how ancestry clines in Italy could be due to the way Indo-European languages spread, and a new study suggests the same thing. Italy and the Balkans, especially the southern parts, differ from the rest of Europe by having a lot of the Caucasus Hunter-Gatherer (CHG) component of Yamnaya, but not much of the Eastern Hunter-Gatherer (EHG) component. The authors conclude that Italic, Greek and Balkan branches of Indo-European may have spread directly from the Caucasus through Anatolia and not via the Russian Steppe.

The most recent literature demonstrated significant impact of Caucasus-related ancestry in the Central European Late-Neolithic and Bronze-Age through the migrations of Yamnaya/Pontic-Steppe herders. Accordingly, our results confirm that Caucasus-related admixture via Yamnaya is present in Eastern and Central-Western European clusters (i.e. Continental Europe; Supplementary Table S8, Supplementary Information). However, among our Mediterranean groups, evidence of Yamnaya (and EHG) introgression seems to be present at a lesser extent and was detected mainly in Balkan-related groups (Supplementary Table S8, Supplementary Information), which in turn display traces of admixture with Eastern Europe (Fig. 4, Supplementary Fig. S2). In addition, outgroup-f3 values for Late Neolithic/Bronze Age samples (especially Yamnaya) appear lower in all our newly analysed Mediterranean populations (Supplementary Fig. S9). These results suggest that the genetic history of Southern Italian and Balkan populations may have been, at least in part, independent from that of Eastern and Central Europe, involving specific migratory events that carried Caucasian and Levantine genetic contributes along the Mediterranean shores (see Supplementary Information). This picture may bring important implications for our understanding of the cultural history of Europe, and in particular for the diffusion of Indo-European languages. The Steppe in the Early Bronze Age has been supported as a source of at least some Indo-European languages entering North-Central Europe at that time. In southern Mediterranean Europe, however, our results suggest lower impacts. Any significant Steppe/northern component may have arrived in the south Balkan mainland and southern Italy only later, by which time Indo-European languages of the Italic, Greek and various Balkan branches had already established themselves there. This would suggest that a Bronze Age Steppe source may be not highly consistent with all branches of the Indo-European family (see also Broushaki et al.).


Summing it up, our analyses show that a Caucasus-related ancestry is observed in both Southern Italian and Southern Balkan populations. Nevertheless, these populations do not seem to reveal such significant evidence of Bronze-Age Yamanya-like introgressions, which have been interpreted as the most probable vectors of CHG-like ancestry in Central-Eastern and Northern Europe and were also linked with the demographic diffusion of some Indo-European languages. These results may suggest that Caucasus-related ancestry reached our Mediterranean populations through migratory events at least partly independent from those postulated for Central Europe, most likely through Anatolia. If so, the spread of Indo-European languages in Europe may be envisaged as a more complex multi-way phenomenon, rather than the one-way result of a single diffusion process.

Sarno et al. "Ancient and recent admixture layers in Sicily and Southern Italy trace multiple migration routes along the Mediterranean". Scientific Reports, 2017.

Genetically Southern European

May 31, 2017

Genetic studies on Italians often say that Northerners are "closer" to Central and Northern Europeans while Southerners are "closer" to Middle Easterners and North Africans. Technically that's true because of simple geography, but it's misleading because it makes it seem like they cluster with those distant populations, which is false. All Italians cluster with other populations from Southern Europe.

This new study is mainly about Peloponnesean Greeks and how they haven't changed much since ancient times, but they also happen to be the group of Greeks who are genetically closest to Southern Italians. In addition to 5 Italian samples from all over the country, the study also has a large sample of Spaniards (including Andalusians from the south), who are genetically closest to Northern Italians.

Confirming many other studies, this PCA plot shows that the Italian samples — Lombards (labeled "Italians"), Venetians, Tuscans (including "TSI"), and Sicilians — cluster in a North-to-South cline between the Spanish and Greek samples, i.e. Southwestern and Southeastern Europe on the map. (Sardinians, as always, are outliers because of their almost purely Neolithic farmer ancestry.)

In these plots, with the Peloponnesean Greeks (in red) acting as a proxy for the southernmost Italians (and therefore all Italians and Southern Europeans in general), we can see that they're genetically distinct from all non-European populations of Western Eurasia, North Africa and beyond.

Supplementary Figure 2: Comparisons of Peloponneseans with non-European populations. PCA analysis of Peloponneseans and A. Near East. B. Caucasus. C. North Africa. D. East Africa. E. Arabia. F. West Siberia populations.

Stamatoyannopoulos et al. "Genetics of the peloponnesean populations and the theory of extinction of the medieval peloponnesean Greeks". Eur J Hum Genet, 2017.

Italian Beauty: Adua Del Vesco

May 1, 2017

Stage name of Rosalinda Cannavò, an actress from Messina, Sicily.

Much Better Population Structure

April 16, 2017

This new study confirms the results of previous studies by Di Gaetano et al. (2012) and Fiorito et al. (2016) but has much better geographical coverage of samples, with 737 individuals from 20 locations in 15 different regions being tested, making the earlier genetic "gap" between North-Central and Southern Italians disappear, filled in by an intermediate Central Italian cluster, creating a continuous cline of variation down the peninsula (with Sardinians as outliers) that mirrors geography.

The four new Italian samples from this study (N_ITA, C_ITA, S_ITA and SARD) cluster right on top of older Italian samples from Bergamo, Tuscany, Abruzzo, Sicily and Sardinia used in earlier studies, which are barely visible underneath, showing that the results are consistent. Northern Italians once again cluster with Spaniards, and there's a small Greek sample this time, but it's not from the areas closest to Southern Italians, clustering more with the Central Italians instead.

The study also for the first time includes a formal admixture test that models the ancestry of Italians by inferring admixture events using all of the Western Eurasian samples. The results are very interesting in light of the ancient DNA evidence that has come out in the last couple years.

When top 1% of most significant f3 values were retained according to computed Z-scores, 85% of tested population trios actually involved Italian clusters (Supplementary Table S2). In addition to the pattern described in the main text, the SARD sample seemed to have played a major role as source of admixture for most of the examined populations, especially Italian ones, rather than as recipient of migratory processes. In fact, the most significant f3 scores for trios including SARD indicated peninsular Italians as plausible results of admixture between SARD and populations from Iran, Caucasus and Russia. This scenario could be interpreted as further evidence that Sardinians retain high proportions of a putative ancestral genomic background that was considerably widespread across Europe at least until the Neolithic and that has been subsequently erased or masked in most of present-day European populations.

It's known that Sardinians are almost identical to Early European Farmers from the Neolithic, and that the Indo-Europeans who spread their languages all across Europe in the Bronze Age were a mix of Eastern Hunter-Gatherers from the Russian Steppe and either Caucasus Hunter-Gatherers or Chalcolithic Iranians (who are very similar).

So it looks like Italians resemble other Europeans in being a mix of early European farmers and later Indo-European invaders. The farmer ancestry (which is ultimately from Anatolia) has an expected southeast to northwest cline in Europe, but surprisingly not within Italy. According to the study's estimates, it's about the same amount in the North as it is in the South. The two regions actually differ in their Indo-European related ancestries, caused by inverse clines of the "Caucasus/Iran" and "Russian Steppe" components.

The purple component was predominant in Southern European groups and equally distributed along the peninsula (average frequency of 46%), almost reaching fixation in Sardinians (85%) plausibly due to their long-term isolation especially to Post-Neolithic processes. [...] The green component was considerably represented in samples from Caucasus and Middle East, being also evident in some Southern European populations (e.g. Greeks) and, especially, in Southern Italy (28%), progressively decreasing towards the northern part of the peninsula (12%). [...] The red component characterized most of Central and Eastern European populations, being reduced in Sardinia (7.4%) and showing a decreasing north-south gradient in peninsular Italy (from 39% in N_ITA to 20% in S_ITA).

This difference could be explained by the fact that Ancient Italy was home to a variety of Indo-European speakers: Italic languages spread everywhere, Celtic languages were spoken in the North, and Greek and Illyrian languages in the South. It's likely that some of these arrived via southern route through the Balkans while others took a northern route over the Alps, and the people who brought them thus had different levels of "Caucasus" and "Russian" ancestry.

Sazzini et al. "Complex interplay between neutral and adaptive evolution shaped differential genomic background and disease susceptibility along the Italian peninsula". Scientific Reports, 2016.

Related: Complex Spread of Indo-European Languages

Italians Aren't Lactose Intolerant

December 19, 2016

In studies on lactose intolerance and its frequency in different populations, you'll often see numbers like 20-70% or 18-85% for Italy, with the highest percentages being in the south. The sources are usually old studies from the 80s or before, but there's a problem with the way testing was done back then. There are also the problems of incorrect self-diagnoses and confusion with different, less severe conditions like lactose maldigestion and irritable bowel syndrome.

According to Dr. Steve Hertzler of Iowa State University:

First, it is very important that people do not "self-diagnose". In addition, even when an individual goes to a physician for a diagnosis, the physician often uses an incorrect approach. The classic example of this is to put the patient on a lactose-free diet and see if the symptoms go away. The potential for "placebo" effect in this type of diagnosis is enormous. From double-blind studies our laboratory group conducted at the University of Minnesota, 1 out of 3 people who "self-diagnosed" themselves as severely lactose intolerant were actually able to digest 15 g lactose (just over 1 cup of milk). It is important to have objective evidence of lactose maldigestion. It is also important to realize that lactose maldigestion among varying individuals is more of a continuum than an "either-or" phenomenon. For example, traditional lactose tolerance tests done by physicians used 50 g of lactose in water after an overnight fast. This is equivalent to drinking a quart of milk on an empty stomach! This is not very physiological or realistic. Just because a person can not tolerate 50 g does not mean that he/she won't tolerate the 12 g in a cup of milk. In our double-blind studies, the symptom response to 12 g lactose was about 25% of subjects, which was not statistically different from a lactose-free placebo. Dose of lactose is a very important factor.

How should lactose intolerance be diagnosed? First, there is a difference between lactose maldigestion and lactose intolerance. The former term means that a person is unable to digest lactose to a certain degree. On average, lactose maldigesters malabsorbed about half of the lactose in 1 cup of milk (some more, some less). However, not everyone experiences symptoms from lactose maldigestion. I once did breath hydrogen testing on a dietitian who worked for the National Dairy Council. She turned out to be a lactose maldigester, but she had no symptoms from drinking milk. Lactose intolerance is when lactose maldigestion is coupled with gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea, flatulence (most common), and stomach discomfort. A person who is experiencing GI symptoms that he/she suspects might be related to lactose maldigestion needs to have confirmation by an objective test. This is important to rule out other potential bowel conditions. Irritable bowel can often masquerade as lactose intolerance.

A later study on Sicilians (who are supposedly one of the most lactose intolerant groups in Europe) took all these facts into account and found a much lower frequency of the condition in a representative sample:

The present study is the first to attempt to clarify the dimensions of the problem of self-reported milk-intolerance, the real correspondence between self-reported milk-intolerance and gastrointestinal symptoms following the breath hydrogen test, and the impact of this self-diagnosis on dietary intake of total calories, proteins and calcium, using data from the general population and not from a pre-selected sample.

In a wide randomized sample representative of a rural community, we observed that 36% of the population were lactose-maldigesters, but only 4% of the whole study group (13% of the maldigesters) showed lactose intolerance after an oral load of 25 g lactose. Although many previous studies have reported a much higher frequency of gastrointestinal symptoms after lactose load in subjects with maldigestion, it has been underlined how field investigations indicate a greater average tolerance to milk than studies on patients referred to hospitals because of aspecific abdominal complaints.


After the cases of self-reported milk intolerants were selected, the analysis of the results is more interesting. The percentage of subjects who believe that they cannot tolerate milk and accordingly reduce milk consumption is considerable: 15% of the examined population. The results of the breath test after lactose challenge were, however, surprising: a) more than 1/3 of these subjects were actually lactose digesters and tolerants (normal H2 breath test and no symptoms following lactose load); b) only 10% of the self-reported lactose-intolerants were really intolerants and showed symptoms after a 25 g lactose load. These results, obtained in a non-selected group of healthy subjects representative of the general population, are in agreement with those recently reported by Suarez et al who showed that 9/30 self-reported lactose intolerants had a normal lactose digestion capacity and that in the remaining 21/30 the gastrointestinal symptoms did not worsen during administration of lactose-containing milk. It is therefore likely that in order to explain the gastrointestinal symptoms of many lactose-maldigesters, the possibility of a diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome or of non-ulcer dyspepsia should be investigated. Our study also clarifies the impact of self-reported milk intolerance on dietary habits. These subjects did not consume milk, or consumed very low quantities of milk and their daily calcium intake was significantly lower. It must be underlined that in the population we studied daily calcium intake was generally much lower than the recommended level (500 mg vs. 800–1000 mg/day), and an unnecessary self-limitation of the consumption of a food rich in calcium, as milk is, seems to be a particularly serious risk factor for osteoporosis. In particular, recent prospective studies have suggested that reduced calcium intake during the adolescence and early adulthood may have a great impact on bone mineral density measurements; this result must induce physicians to pay particular attention to dietary calcium intake.

In conclusion, we affirm that in a representative sample of the general population, with an approximately 40% prevalence of lactase insufficiency, there was: a) a low frequency of lactose intolerance (4%); b) an incongruous overestimation of the frequency of milk intolerance: 15% of the general population; c) a low dietary calcium intake, which is even less satisfactory (300 mg/day) in subjects who limit milk consumption due to self-reported milk intolerance. Lactose digestion capacity should therefore be carefully investigated in all self-reported milk intolerant subjects.

Carroccio et al. "Lactose intolerance and self-reported milk intolerance: relationship with lactose maldigestion and nutrient intake". J Am Coll Nutr, 1998.

Height Gains in a Global Context

October 11, 2016

Even though Italians are seeing more height gains than Northern Europeans due to improved nutrition, they're still on the shorter side in a European context, but they're relatively tall compared to the rest of the world and moving steadily up the ladder.

According to a new study that analyzed measurements of people born between 1896 and 1996 in 200 countries, including large samples from all over Italy, a hundred years ago Italian men were the 57th tallest in the world (women 55th), but today they're the 29th tallest (women 32nd). The men grew by about 13cm (5in) from 165cm (5'5") to 178cm (5'10"), and the women by 11cm (4in) from 154cm (5'1") to 165cm (5'5").

Adult height for the 1896 and 1996 birth cohorts for men:

Adult height for the 1896 and 1996 birth cohorts for women:

Change in adult height between the 1896 and 1996 birth cohorts:

NCD Risk Factor Collaboration (NCD-RisC). "A century of trends in adult human height". eLife, 2016.

More Italian Population Structure

August 10, 2016

This new study is a follow-up to Di Gaetano et al. (2012) by the same team. It increases the number of SNPs, improves the sample selection criteria, and incorporates some newer methods, but it has a lot of the same problems. The main findings are that genetic variation in Italy is clinal going from the Western to the Eastern Mediterranean (with Sardinians as outliers) and that all Italians are made up of the same ancestral components, in different proportions, related to Paleolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age settlements of Europe (with minor recent Lombard/Norman and Moorish admixture).

We hypothesize two simple historical scenarios leading to the observed genetic variability across Italy: (a) continuous ancient gene flow amplified by isolation-by-distance in recent times; (b) different ancestral origins of the main Italian macroareas whose distinguishability has been attenuated by genetic exchange in recent times.

Monmonier's algorithm revealed no evidence of the presence of genetic barriers across the peninsula. Instead, results from the Mantel test provide evidence of a correlation between genetics and geographical distance. The observed higher average length of the segments with shared IBD within regions compared with those shared between regions (Supplementary Table S2B) suggests recent isolation-by-distance across the wide range of latitude of the Italian peninsula. Moreover, a North to South gradient of increasing ancestral Ne was inferred for the three main macroareas (Northern, Central and Southern), coinciding with increased heterozygosity in Southern Italy. A similar trend was previously described for the rate of inbreeding and genome-wide similarity across Central Europe, and could be interpreted as a signature of the 'Out of Africa' migration during Palaeolithic expansions from refugia after the ice age and of ancient South-to-North migratory waves that occurred at the times of European colonization by Neolithic farmers. The ancestry and IBD analyses provided evidence of admixture in Italy with three major ancestries detected, most represented in Northern Europeans, Southern Europeans and Middle Eastern, respectively (with a small percentage of a North African component found in South Italy and Sardinia), with different prevalence across the peninsula. None of these components is fixed in any population, meaning that there is a poor fit with a strict admixture model, as assumed by the algorithm used, and supporting a process of continuous gene flow in multiple directions (migratory waves to and from Italy). According to previous studies on the Y chromosome and mtDNA, the Middle Eastern ancestry in Southern Italians most likely originated at the time of the Greek colonization and, with a smaller percentage, of the subsequent Arabic domination, whereas in Central-Northern Italy it is possibly because of the admixture of the indigenous residents with Middle Eastern populations spreading from the Caucasus to Central Europe. Our results agree with previously published reports describing a possible maritime route of colonization across Europe, including Italy, although we cannot exclude the occurrence of more recent demographic events leading to a similar scenario. Finally, the homogenous ancestral effective population size across Italian regions could be interpreted as reflecting common genetic origins, taking also into account previous considerations, although the same results might also occur in comparing populations without common origins.

Our study supports the notion that genetic variability across Italy is likely to represent continuous gene flow leading to differences in the proportion of ancestry from different sources, along with genetic exchange among neighbouring populations (eg, Northern Italian with European countries, Southern Italian with Middle Eastern and North African ones). Previous studies, analysing uniparental markers, found Y-chromosome genetic discontinuity across Italy. This contrasts with a general lack of structure for mitochondrial DNA, and with a higher homogeneity for maternal than paternal genetic contributions, suggesting different demographic and historical dynamics for females and males in Italy.

One issue is that the samples are still unevenly distributed, with a big gap between North-Center and South — which is reflected in the PCAs — and almost nothing from the eastern part of the country. (Note: the genetic gap between Aosta Valley and its very close neighbor regions is due to some of it being ethnically French).

Principal component analysis based on the coancestry matrix including Sardinians (b) and excluding Sardinians (c); x and y axes were inverted to emphasize similarity to the geographical map of Italy.

This time they do include a few Iberians for comparison, and that's who Northern Italians cluster with. But besides a few Cypriots, there are still no Greeks, which Paschou et al. (2014) and many other studies show Southern Italians clustering with. Sardinians, as always, are the closest to Ötzi the Iceman.

Fiorito et al. "The Italian genome reflects the history of Europe and the Mediterranean basin". Eur J Hum Genet, 2016.

Related: Much Better Population Structure

WW2 Internment Was No Big Deal

July 8, 2016

Some people like to make a big deal out of the internment of Italian American "enemy aliens" during World War 2 and claim that it's been unfairly ignored by history (German American internment gets ignored too, but whatever). The reality though, is that it was simply nothing worth mentioning compared to what the Japanese suffered, because Italians benefited from white privilege.

The contrast between treatment of the Italian Americans and the Japanese, the other non-Nordic group subject to being linked by ancestry to the fascist war effort, was stark. As 120,000 Japanese Americans — 40,000 of them classed as enemy aliens — went to detention camps, Italian American aliens suffered only relatively brief harassment, especially directed against Pacific Coast fisherman and waterfront residents. With a congressional committee holding that evacuation policies for Italian Americans were "out of the question if we intend to win this war," Roosevelt urged caution. In May 1942, almost two-thirds of all enemy aliens were Italian Americans but less than one-seventh of enemy aliens in federal custody were. The following month New York City's Italian American mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, led the New York at War procession, which banned Japanese Americans. In the context of the 1942 election, Roosevelt rescinded the enemy alien designation against Italian Americans and expedited naturalization processes for them. Japanese aliens, who unlike Italians had never had the opportunity to naturalize, stayed in custody. Earl Warren, a supporter of Japanese internment who later served as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, explained that Italians were "just like everybody else" and therefore should not be held. A remarkable article published by the NAACP found the Japanese to be victims of "barbarous treatment [as a] result of the color line" and Italians able to escape such treatment because they were "white."

Even the most notorious racist in U.S. politics, Mississippi senator Theodore Bilbo, seemed to reluctantly agree that Italian Americans could not be racially attacked. Bilbo had responded to an Italian American supporter of fair employment practices by addressing her as "My Dear Dago." When [Congressman Vito] Marcantonio rebuked him, the Mississippian additionally called his adversary a "political mongrel." However, as the controversy garnered press attention, Bilbo reigned in his tendency to demean "racial" and "ethnic" minorities in the same screeds. He assured all that he acted out of "the respect and love I have for the Caucasian blood that flows not only in my veins but in the veins of Jews, Italians, Poles and other nationalities of the White race [whom] I would not want to see contaminated with Negro blood."

David R. Roediger. Working Toward Whiteness: How America's Immigrants Became White: The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs. New York: Basic Books, 2006.