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By today's standards, Antonio Todde's life has been a harsh one; he dropped out of school at the age of 6, was wounded in the shoulder by a grenade during the First World War, and then, for 70 years, he herded sheep through the mountains of Sardinia, off the coast of Italy.

Today, at 112, Mr. Todde is the oldest man in the world. And despite the rigours of his alpine life, researchers say he lives like a king in the village of Tiana, where he is respected and visited daily by relatives and neighbours.

One of the demographers studying Mr. Todde and dozens of other male centenarians in the Sardinian mountains wonders whether their exalted status has helped them live longer.

"Men, especially the centenarians, are put on a pedestal in this society," said Michel Poulain, a demographer from Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, who has been studying the Sardinian centenarians. He presented his findings yesterday at the World Gerontology Conference in Vancouver.

"They are treated very well," he said, adding that Mr. Todde and the other male centenarians in his study do not live isolated, lonely lives. There are no nursing homes in Tiana and most of the men in the study live with relatives and have a high status in the home. "The role of the male in this Sardinian society is very, very special."

The researchers have focused on Sardinia because the region is home to dozens of men aged 100 and more. Nowhere else does such a high percentage of men reach the age of 100 than on the 24,000-square-kilometre island, about 250 kilometres west of Italy.

In most other countries, the ratio of women to men who pass the 100-year mark is five to one. In Sardinia, it is just two to one. And in the mountains, an equal number of men and women reach 100.

The researchers zeroed in on a swath of nine villages, where, out of a population of 30,000 people, 56 people in the past 20 years have reached 100 and beyond. Thirty-three were men, 23 were women.

Researchers noted of similarities among the centenarians; all lived in high-altitude, remote villages where the lifestyle was agrarian. Diet consisted of pasta, meat, fresh vegetables and fruit.

Mr. Todde rode a horse for exercise until he was 75. Until he was 109, he drank 2½ glasses of red wine each day. Now, he drinks 1½ glasses of wine a day.