The Lovely Hill: Where People Live Longer and Happier

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In one idyllic community in southern California, Adventists live 4 to 7 years longer -- and more healthily and happily -- than the rest of the country. A look at their diet, lifestyle, and philosophy

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When Ellsworth Wareham was in his nineties, he decided that his house in Loma Linda, California -- a beautiful city 60 miles east of Los Angeles, Spanish for "lovely hill" -- needed a new fence. But rather than hire a contractor to install the wood fence, as most nonagenarians would no doubt do, Wareham went to the hardware store, bought the supplies he needed, and returned to dig some post holes. As Dan Buettner recounts in his book Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest, Wareham proceeded to put the wood fence up himself.

A few days later, Wareham was in the hospital -- performing open-heart surgery on a patient.

Some Adventists get personally offended if they get colon cancer or some other disease.

Wareham has had some extraordinary experiences. During World War II, he was a doctor in the Navy; once, when he was on board a destroyer near the coast of Okinawa, he removed the appendix of an officer as the ship was being tossed about in the middle of a typhoon. In the 1950s, he did pioneering work on open-heart surgery when it was still a new technique. On a U.S. State Department sponsored trip in 1963, some surgeons from Loma Linda -- including Wareham -- were with a team of doctors that brought open-heart surgery to Pakistan for the first time. And during the Vietnam War, the work that he and other heart surgeons did in Saigon was featured on the Walter Cronkite show.

By many accounts, Wareham, now 98, has led a good, full, and meaningful life. What does he know that we don't?

As a middle-aged man, Wareham spent a lot of time in the operating room cutting into one patient after another who had heart problems. There, he noticed something: patients who were vegetarian mostly had much cleaner and smoother arteries than those who ate meat. The arteries of meat-eaters tended to be full of calcium and plaque.

So he made a choice. He decided to become a vegan. That decision was not too hard to make given the fact that many of the inhabitants of his southern Californian community were already very health conscious. Consider: there is no meat sold at one of the largest grocery stores in town. In fact, as recently as a generation ago, meat was difficult to find in the grocery stores of Loma Linda, as the New York Times reports. On top of that, smoking is banned in the town; alcohol is scarcely available; and fast food restaurants are hard to come by.

But make no mistake: Loma Linda is not some bohemian enclave of free-spirited vegans. Rather, what makes the community remarkable -- and remarkably health conscious -- is that it is home to one of the largest concentrations of Seventh-Day Adventists in the world. A conservative denomination of Christianity founded during this country's Second Great Awakening in the mid-1800s, the religion advocates a healthy lifestyle as a main tenet of the faith. This is a major reason why Wareham, a Seventh-Day Adventist, takes his health so seriously.

"Adventists believe in the body and soul as one," according to Dr. Daniel Giang of Loma Linda University's Medical Center. Pastor Randy Roberts of the same university references scripture to drive the point home: "In Corinthians, Paul speaking of the human body says specifically, 'you are the temple of the Holy spirit.' Therefore, he says, whatever you do in your body, you do it to the honor, the glory and the praise of God." The Seventh-Day Adventists, like Jews and Muslims, stay away from foods that the Bible deems impure, like pork.

Many Seventh-Day Adventists are vegetarians, physically active, and involved in their community. In other words, their lifestyles are quite unique in an America where community has become less and less important and over one third of the population is obese. Smoking and drinking are discouraged by the faith, as is the consumption of caffeine, rich foods, and certain spices. By most of our hyper-connected standards, the Seventh-Day Adventists are also an isolated community. Unlike other Christian sects that take their Sabbath on Sunday, they take theirs on Saturday. The more conservative members of the religion cut themselves off from popular culture altogether.

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Because of their unique lifestyle, scientists from a variety of organizations like the National Health Institute and the American Cancer Society have since 1958 been studying how the community's dietary habits, lifestyle, disease rates, and mortality interact in a series of studies known as the Adventist Health Studies. What they have found in the decades since is remarkable.

Loma Linda leads the country in longevity. While the average American woman will live to be 81, vegetarian Adventist women in Loma Linda will on average live to be 86. While the average American man will live until 76, the average vegetarian Adventist man will live until 83.

The Adventists are also notably resilient. "Some Adventists get personally offended if they get colon cancer or some other disease," says a doctor from the town.

The death rate from cancer for Adventist men is 60 percent lower than that of the average California male; for Adventist women, it is 75 percent lower. According to Loma Linda University, ground zero in the Adventist Health Studies, "Death from coronary heart disease among Adventist men was 66 percent [lower compared to their California peers]; for Adventist women, it was 98 percent [lower]. Stroke death rates for Adventist men were 72 percent [lower], compared to their non-Adventist counterparts. For Adventist women, death from stroke was 82 percent [lower]."

These facts have led Buettner, a National Geographic Explorer, to label Loma Linda America's hot spot (or "blue zone") of health and longevity. Their physical health is not the only thing outpacing that of regular Americans. On measures of mental health and well-being, the Adventists also score much higher than the average American.

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What are the Adventists doing differently from the rest of us? Beyond their conservative lifestyle and commitment to faith -- research shows that attending religious services regularly is associated with greater longevity and happiness -- there is also the matter of what they eat, which is a mostly Mediterranean diet. Eating like Greeks not only can account for their excellent health, but it may also explain why they score higher on measures of well-being.

According to research in psychology, happiness is determined by three variables. Your genetic makeup accounts for 50 percent, and your circumstances account for 10 percent. The remainder of your enduring happiness is determined by the choices we voluntarily make -- how we think and act and what we do on a day-to-day basis. That 40 percent, as social psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky points out in her book The How of Happiness, can go a long way. 

According to a new large study, which will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, eating Mediterranean foods is linked to feeling happy. People who eat foods associated with a Mediterranean diet -- non-starchy fresh vegetables, fresh fruits, olive oil, legumes, and nuts -- experience more of those emotions associated with being happy than people who eat a typically American diet, which consists of high-fat dairy products, eggs, refined grains, and processed food.

The health benefits of eating Mediterranean foods have been well documented. People whose diets incorporate a healthy serving of fresh vegetables, olive oil, fish, whole grains, and fruit are at lower risk for heart disease and cancer, the two leading causes of death in the United States. They are also at lower risk for diabetes and Alzheimer's. They are better able to control their weight and cholesterol levels; they tend to be more alert; they exhibit less depressive symptoms; and they may live longer.

To see what a difference eating Greek makes, consider the effects that just three simple patterns of the Mediterranean diet have had on the Adventists.

The first is the role of nuts, which forms a large part of the Adventist diet in Loma Linda. According to Gary Fraser, a doctor and professor at the Loma Linda University School of Medicine, "Adventists who consumed nuts at least five times a week had about half the risk of heart disease of those who didn't. This was true of men, women, vegetarian, non-vegetarian--we split the population up about 16 or 17 different ways and each time asked the question, 'Does nut consumption matter?' And every time we saw that it did." The nut eaters also lived two years longer than those who did not regularly consume nuts.

Then there are tomatoes, a staple of the Mediterranean diet. If you are an Adventist woman who eats tomatoes three or four times a week, you are 70 percent less likely to get ovarian cancer than your friends who eat tomatoes more sparingly. For men, eating tomatoes decreases the chances of getting prostate cancer.

Finally, eating meat makes a big difference. Adventist men who do not eat meat outlive American men by seven years. Adventist women who do not eat meat outlive American women by five years. Many Adventists do not eat meat, but even those that do outlive their peers thanks to the amount of vegetables, fruits, and other healthy foods they eat. Meat-eating Adventist men live 7.3 years longer while the women live 4.4 years longer than other Californians.

On the other side of the spectrum, we know that certain dietary patterns, like eating lots of fatty foods, are associated with depression and mental illness.

Drew Ramsay, MD, of Columbia University elaborates:

Emerging research in the fields of neuroscience and nutrition show that people who eat a diet of modern processed foods have increased levels of depression, anxiety, mood swings, hyperactivity, and a wide variety of other mental and emotional problems. One study found that adolescents with low-quality junk food diets are 79 percent more likely to suffer from depression. Another found that diets high in trans fats found in processed foods raised the risk of depression by 42 percent among adults over the course of approximately six years. And a huge study of women's diets by the Harvard School of Public Health concluded that those whose diets contained the greatest number of healthy omega-3 fats (and the lowest levels of unhealthy omega-6s) were significantly less likely to suffer from depression.

While scientists know a lot about the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet and eating patterns associated with mental illness, they know far less about the eating habits that are related to a thriving and good life. This new study steps in to fill that void.

"Much of the published research has focused upon food's association with depression and foods association with disease," Patricia Ford, the lead author of the study, tells me. "This study is focusing upon positive health and positive well-being."

Ford and her team at Loma Linda University examined the eating patterns of over 9,000 healthy Seventh-Day Adventists in North America over a four-year period. How often did they eat fast food? Did they eat meat? What kinds of dairy products were they consuming? What about nuts? Desserts? Fish? They then examined their self-reported feelings of positive and negative emotions--how often did they feel inspired? Excited? Enthusiastic? Upset? Scared? Distressed?

The researchers found that those who eat like Greeks feel more inspired, alert, excited, active, inspired, determined, attentive, proud, and enthusiastic than those who consume a more typically American diet consisting of highly processed foods, soda, and sweets like cookies and doughnuts. People who eat foods associated with a Mediterranean diet also experienced less negative emotions like being afraid, nervous, upset, irritable, scared, hostile, and distressed. The more people ate those foods that are more typically American -- specifically, red meat, sweets, and fast food -- the less of these positive emotions they felt.

For women, the findings of Ford's study were particularly dramatic. Though men ate more red meat, processed foods, desserts, sodas, and fast foods than women, when women ate unhealthily, they experienced more emotional distress. Not only did those who ate red meat and fast food frequently experience less positive moods, but they also experienced more negative feelings, a pattern not seen in men who ate less healthy foods.

Those women might look to the life of Marge Jetton for inspiration. Like Wareham, Jetton is a model of the Adventist lifestyle. At 100 years old, Jetton, a former nurse, would wake up at 4.30 am each morning. After getting dressed and reading from the Bible, she would work out. When she completed her mile-long walk and 6-8 miles on the stationary bike, she had oatmeal for breakfast. For lunch, she would mix up some raw vegetables and fruit. Occasionally, she would splurge on a treat like waffles made from soy and garbanzo beans. That wasn't all. The centenarian volunteered regularly, barreled around town in her Cadillac Seville, and pumped iron. She also tended to a garden that grew tomatoes, corn, and hydrangeas.

Though she was sad and lonely after her husband died in 2003, she found happiness in serving other people. "I found that when you are depressed, that's when you do something for somebody else ... My motto is: A stranger is a friend we haven't met yet." Another motto: "Try to be happy in spite of your trials."

She died in February 2011 at the age of 106. Her friends and community remembered her as being quick-witted and funny. "She represented the promise of good living," Buettner said when she died. 

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Emily Esfahani Smith is a writer based in New York. She is an editor at The New Criterion, the managing editor of the Hoover Institution's Defining Ideas, and the editor of Acculturated.

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