Want to see your 100th birthday? Be like the French and drink red wine
In the battle of the centenarians, it is an unequal contest. France and Britain have near identical populations, yet today 20,000 French citizens are aged 100-plus against 11,000 people in Britain.
The increase in the very old is happening across the Western world but the number in France has soared, according to the National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies in Paris, which published the figures.
They show French centenarians have risen from 3,760 in 1990 to 20,115 in 2008, a more than five-fold increase. In Britain, centenarians are the fastest growing section of the population, yet we still trail our continental cousins. What is the secret of the French success?
France still holds the record for the world's longest lived person – Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997 aged 122 years, five months and 14 days. She attributed her longevity to a diet rich in olive oil, regular glasses of port and an ability to "keep smiling".
With her keen interest in good food and drink and zest for life she was the perfect advertisement for the health-giving properties of la vie française. Despite the French passion for cream, eggs and foie gras, le digestif after a meal, and an addiction to Gitanes cigarettes, they have half our obesity levels, less than half our death rate from heart disease and lower rates of cancer in women (but not men). They play boules and cycle, even in their dotage, which keeps them active enough to enjoy lunch. And lunch they take very seriously – a proper, sit-down, three- or four-course meal from an early age.
The biggest puzzle is how the land of Escoffier, with its love of rich food and creamy sauces, has managed to avoid an epidemic of heart disease. The French and British diets contain similar quantities of fat, at around 40 per cent of total calories, yet French rates of heart disease in the under-75s are less than half those in Britain.
Kay Tee-Khaw, professor of clinical gerontology at the University of Oxford, said: "France's high number of centenarians is interesting. A major cause of death in middle age is heart disease. Life expectancy from age 65 is substantially better in France, because they have substantially lower rates of heart disease. It is better in Crete and Greece, too.
"We know this must be due to lifestyle because the time trends are so clear. There have been massive changes [in longevity] and it has happened so fast it must be due to lifestyle but we have not been so good at understanding what aspects. I think red wine has something to do with it."
The low rate of heart disease in France, despite its rich diet, is the French paradox which has puzzled medical researchers for decades. US scientists have suggested the explanation could be the French habit of eating everything, but less of it.
Like Britain, the country has a north-south divide, with cream cheese and cider dominating menus in Normandy and fish, fruit and vegetables and olive oil rather than butter featuring more prominently close to the Mediterranean. Death rates fall as the consumption of fruit and vegetables increases.
Then there is the wine. There have been rapid increases in wine sales in the UK in the past decade, yet British consumption at 27 litres a head per year still has a long way to go to match the French at 64 litres. Despite drinking in greater quantities, the French drink more moderately, with meals, as opposed to binge drinking in Britain.
Red wine is thought to be good for combating heart disease. But Roger Corder, professor of experimental therapeutics at St Bartholomew's Hospital, London, and author of The Wine Diet, believes the explanation is more complex. He observed that the Gers region close to the Pyrénées in the south had twice the national average of men aged over 90.
When he analysed the Madiran wine, made with at least 40 per cent Tannat grapes grown in the region, he found it had among the highest levels in any wine of a plant chemical, procyanadin, which has a beneficial effect on the blood vessels.
"The wines to look for containing high levels of procyanadins are those with firm tannins made in the traditional way. It is not just about Madirans. There are plenty of choices out there."
He added: "But it is not just about wine. The French spend more on food and eat better quality and more variety. It is about a lifetime's habit. Cut out all this dieting nonsense and just eat healthily and exercise. The French join cycle clubs – and then go for fantastic lunches."
The French recipe for a longer life
The Germans have a saying: "Happy like God in France". A modern version might be "Happy like a wrinkly in France".
The explosion in the numbers of very elderly French is something of a mystery to the French themselves. And a bit of a worry. By mid-century, at the current rate, there could be 170,000 French centenarians.
The best guess of French researchers is that there is something in the French climate and diet which is conducive to long life. But climate and diet have been roughly the same for years. The proliferation of French centenarians, three quarters of them women, is explained by advances in medical treatment, and the generally lavish provision of good-quality healthcare since the 1940s.
A decade ago, American researchers discovered something that they called the "French Paradox". French people lived longer and were healthier even though they consumed many things – especially large quantities of red wine – which were supposed to inflict bodily harm.
The true paradox of French longevity is more complex than that. It is a series of interlocking paradoxes.
First, there are regional differences. Expectation of life is higher in the south of France than in the north, and especially high in the south-west. If you truly wish to live to be 100, you could try the red wine, olive oil, poultry, fish and haricots of the typical French south-western diet.
Secondly, longevity is supposed to be a sign of contentment. Yet polls and anecdotal evidence suggest the French are a naturally cantankerous and discontented people.
Finally,the French are no longer eating and drinking like the French. Medical researchers worry they have moved to a more Anglo-Saxon diet: more fat, more processed foods, more beer.
Perhaps there will not be a great great granny-boom in mid-century France after all.