Recipe for More Golden Years?

The women of Cahors, France, clockwise from top: Aliette Picuira, 82, left, says she adds three spoonfuls of wine to her nightly bowl of soup, while Raymonde Labat, 83, prefers champagne with her meals; Hélène Vialard turned 100 in October; Jeanne Cuisiner, 87, likes dancing the tango.
The women of Cahors, France, clockwise from top: Aliette Picuira, 82, left, says she adds three spoonfuls of wine to her nightly bowl of soup, while Raymonde Labat, 83, prefers champagne with her meals; Hélène Vialard turned 100 in October; Jeanne Cuisiner, 87, likes dancing the tango.

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By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 5, 2007

CAHORS, France

For her 100th birthday party last October, Hélène Vialard indulged in her favorite meal -- coq au vin. She adores the local Cahors red wines, occasionally eats a sliver of foie gras, another regional specialty, and says she has no secret for reaching the century mark: "It just came on its own. I never thought I would live this long."

The women of France -- a land renowned for a cuisine laden with fats and calories -- have the longest life expectancy of any nation on Earth except Japan. A baby girl born in France in 2006 can expect to live until she is at least 84, surpassing a baby boy's potential by seven years, according to new government statistics. Only Japanese women have a longer life expectancy, 85.6 years. American women can expect a life span of 80.1 years, recent statistics show.

Some of the longest-living Frenchwomen reside in the southwest's Midi-Pyrenees region, which is famous for its fatty foie gras -- made from the livers of overfed ducks and geese -- and rustic red wines. Here, where women say moderation is the key to indulging in their favorite foods, female life expectancy is a full year above the national average.

"There is a real paradox in the southwest of France," said Jacques Vallin of the country's National Institute for Demographic Studies, who specializes in elderly populations. "It's one of the areas where people live the longest and where cardiovascular risks are the lowest, even though it's the foie gras region. It contradicts people's expectations about health and common sense."

Life expectancy rates for both men and women are rising across Europe, fueled by a combination of improved health care, especially for newborns and the elderly, the elimination of many diseases, and lower risks of dying from smoking, drinking and automobile accidents, according to Guy Desplanques, chief of the demographics department at France's National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies.

But what may be good news for individuals is putting increasing strain on governments across Western Europe, as they confront the rising costs of caring for populations that are rapidly aging while birthrates are slowing or diminishing.

In France, life expectancy is increasing at an average of three months a year. By the end of this century, French officials project, the average life span for women will be 95, and for men, 91.

Across most of the world, women tend to live longer than men. Some experts say that women have stronger constitutions or take better care of themselves; others argue that they have less stressful jobs and lifestyles.

Hélène Vialard, who moved from Paris to Cahors for its clean air after she was found to have tuberculosis at age 16, is a member of one of the fastest-growing demographic groups in France -- centenarians, people who are 100 or older.

Last year, more than 16,000 women and men in France were at least 100 years old, more than double the number of seven years ago. The National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies projects that by 2050, the country will have 150,000 centenarians. Now sociologists talk in terms of a new class of elderly -- super-centenarians, those who've reached 110 years or more.

Cahors, a town of 21,000 people cradled in a bend of the Lot River, is bracing for such a future. Because of its reputation for a relaxing lifestyle, pleasant climate and good food, it is attracting elderly residents from other parts of France as well as neighboring countries. The area now has seven assisted-care homes for the elderly, and two more will soon be under construction.


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