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. 

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Emily Esfahani Smith is a writer based in New Haven, Connecticut. She is the Manners and Morals columnist at The New Criterion, managing editor of the Hoover Institution's Defining Ideas, and editor of Acculturated.

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