The longevity and cardiovascular health that the Mediterranean is famous for isn't all down to the balanced local diet. In small, isolated villages on the Greek island of Crete, a traditional diet rich in animal fats doesn't seem to harm its population very much – but only because of a newly identified gene that offers them protection.

The population of the northern Cretan villages are known in Greece for their good health well into old age. Scientists who have been investigating the genome of people from these villages have now honed in on a reason why: a variant of a gene called rs145556679*.

This variant has almost exclusively been found in the villages of Mylopotamos. The local diet here is rich in saturated animal fats, which in any other population would increase triglycerides and cholesterol in the blood – usually a recipe for heart disease.

But rs145556679* appears to counteract the effects of this diet high in saturated fats, according to a study published in the journal Nature Communications.

"We have identified a cardiovascular protective variant associated with lower triglyceride levels," study author Eleftheria Zeggini of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute told IBTimes UK.

"These variations are at a much higher frequency in the isolated village populations compared to the cosmopolitan European population."

This isn't the first time the group has found a gene that boosts the cardiovascular health of this population. Four years ago, Zeggini released another study identifying another gene that had a similar protective effect.

However, not all of the population of Mylopotamos carries this gene variant. In fact, only 1% of them do. It's likely that this is one genetic factor of many that are contributing to the health of the population. For Zeggini, the next steps are to identify more of these genes.

elderly couple drinking
The people of Mylopotamos in northern Crete enjoy a diet high in animal fats into their old age. Istock

The research on rs145556679* could pave the way for new therapies and interventions for the rest of the world's population that doesn't have this genetic variant.

"It points us to genes and biological processes that modulate blood lipid levels. That has potential to lead us to new discoveries of targets for new therapies," said Zeggini.

The exact mechanism by which the gene variant maintains cardiovascular health despite a diet rich in animal fats is not yet known. This will be work for another research group to pursue in order to lead eventually to better treatments for conditions such as heart disease and stroke.