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Family, faith for long life

March 16, 2005

People with strong family ties and religious faith are much more likely to live beyond their 100th birthday than the rest of us, says a 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 US, 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 other societies.

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

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