Diet, weight loss and longevity with The Okinawa Diet

Relatives, religion and a drop of red 'will see you to 100'.

People with strong family ties and religious faith are much more likely to live beyond their 100th birthday than the rest of us, according to new research.

Demographers who studied clusters of centenarians in Japan, Italy and America found that most shared five habits in common.

The other factors were drinking wine and eating in moderation, not smoking, and having a clear division of labour between man and wife so that stress was equally shared.

The population with the longest life expectancy are the inhabitants of the Japanese island of Okinawa, where men live to an average age of 78 and women to 86.

Okinawans have 20 per cent of the heart disease, a quarter of the breast and prostate cancer and a third of dementia cases found in the United States, according to Dr Craig Willcox, of the Okinawa Centenarian Study.

Most belong to moai, mutual support networks that meet to take tea and chat several times a week, providing financial and emotional support throughout their lives.

The researchers believe that having ikigai, which translates roughly as "that which makes one's life worth living", is central to the longevity of the Okinawans.

Many of the elderly on the island grow their own food and live by the Confucian-inspired adage, "hara hachi bu" - "eat until your stomach is 80 per cent full".

In villages close to the Gennargentu Mountains in central Sardinia, known as the Blue Zone by demographers, 91 of the 17,865 people born between 1880 and 1900 lived beyond their 100th birthday, twice the average Italian rate.

Inhabitants in the region were found to stay active, tending animals or attending to other farm duties for far longer than in other societies.

Family bonds were also found to be much stronger. Few people put their parents in retirement homes because it would bring dishonour to their family.

Whereas the ratio of female to male centenarians in most countries is around four to one, in part of Sardinia it is close to one to one.

The researchers put this down to a strict sexual division of labour, with men seen as being in charge of physical work and being the bread-winner, while women are responsible for managing the home and the finances.

This is believed to reduce the stress faced by male inhabitants, thereby substantially reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Drinking moderate amounts of red wine containing high levels of compounds that inhibit the production of endothelin-1 - a substance critical to the development of heart disease - and eating pecorino cheese - containing omega-3 fatty acids - also helps many Sardinians to live longer.

A study of Seventh-Day Adventists carried out in California, funded by the National Institutes of Health, found that the average Adventist lived between four and 10 years longer than other Californians. Researchers put the difference mainly down to a combination of diet and faith.

Scott Parker, a Seventh-Day Adventist pastor from Loma Linda, said: "To accept Christ is to be free, which reduces stress."

The church, founded in the 19th century, forbids smoking, drinking alcohol and discourages consumption of meat, rich foods and caffeine.

The NIH study found that Adventists' practice of eating beans, soya milk, tomatoes and a lot of fruit reduced their risks of developing certain cancers.

Eating mainly wholewheat bread, drinking five glasses of water a day and consuming several servings of nuts per week appeared to reduce their risk of heart disease.

Central to Seventh-Day Adventists is the observing of the Sabbath by attending church and spending time with friends and family.

Details of the study are in the November edition of National Geographic magazine.

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