Despite indulging in an artery-clogging diet that could make even an Italian grandmother cringe, the 400 or so residents of tiny Stoccareddo, Italy, have virtually no heart disease or diabetes, and often live into their 90s.

At first blush, nothing seems to be unusual about the tiny town, other than the shocks of red hair that are oddly common here. But a little sniffing around reveals not only fresh air and the tantalizing scent of Italian food cooking, but also a tasty medical mystery.

Almost everyone in Stoccareddo is related in one way or another. Much to the dismay of the local postal workers, almost everyone in town shares the same last name: Bau (pronounced Bow-ooh).

An Unusual Claim to Fame

According to Amerigo Bau, the unofficial town historian, the first Bau family arrived in Stoccareddo about 800 years ago from Denmark. They became well-known miners and builders.

But recently, the claim to fame for the residents of Stoccareddo has come to rest with genetic researchers. Dr. Uros Hladnik studies rare diseases at the Baschirotto Institute, a private foundation in Vincenza, Italy. He has been studying why the Baus of Stoccareddo seem to be able to eat fatty meats, cheeses and cream sauces without suffering the most serious consequences.

A close look at their cholesterol shows that their levels of LDL - the so-called "bad" cholesterol - are lower than those of most Italians, and their HDL levels - the so-called "good" cholesterol - are much higher.

"They seem to be protected," Hladnik said. "Maybe the Baus have something that allows them to eat cholesterol."

Or maybe their good health may ultimately have less to do with their genetic code and more to do with their zip code.

"Apart from the research that's going on, we believe that we have two genes that contribute to a better life: the good air that we breathe and the happiness that you breathe in the town," Amerigo Bau said.

Bringing Their Good Health to America

Not all the Baus have remained in Stoccareddo. There are Baus who have moved far from the foothills of the Italian Alps to places like Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

Ron and Jerry Bau are third-generation Italian-American Baus, who, unlike the Stoccareddo Baus, have not been marrying within a community of people who share their surname. But the mysterious good health of their Italian kin has got them thinking.

"I definitely have some hope that it will offer protection for our family, but even perhaps more importantly is somewhere down the line this genetic research might lead to something that would help all humanity," said Ron Bau.

This hope is shared by his brother Jerry as well. But until the research is completed, the Stoccareddo Baus' unlikely good health remains a medical mystery.