Loma Linda: The secret to a long healthy life?
- 8 December 2014
- From the section Magazine
In a world where the cost of the obesity crisis is widely acknowledged to be as damaging as smoking and armed conflict, it is refreshing to discover a community that bucks the trend.
It is all the more surprising that the California town of Loma Linda, which oozes good health amongst its inhabitants, is found amidst an urban landscape of fast food restaurants and convenience stores.
But this is a place that has an enviable record of its residents living to a ripe old age, often without the burdens of chronic illness until very late in life.
Studies have shown that people here live up to 10 years longer than most Americans and enjoy better health in their golden years.
The reason for this extraordinary longevity could be rooted in their faith. Seventh-day Adventists make up about half of the approximately 24,000 people who live here. It is an evangelical Christian community that follows strict guidelines about food, exercise and rest.
"The data is clear, the data has been published, the data has been peer reviewed," says Dr Wayne Dysinger, chair of the preventative medicine department at Loma Linda University School of Medicine.
"There's really not a lot of argument that people [living] this lifestyle, live longer."
Loma Linda, Spanish for "beautiful" or "lovely" hill", is 100km east of Los Angeles. It has been known as a mecca for healthy living for decades.
The town was adopted at the turn of the 20th century, by the health-focused founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, who purchased property in the area.
Ellen White, a leading church pioneer and spiritual guide, remarked that she was enchanted by the charm of the place.
White, a diminutive woman with a powerful personality, was a prolific author and inspired the Church's teachings on matters of diet, exercise and lifestyle. She claimed that her beliefs were based on visionary experiences - dreams and conversations with God.
"She called tobacco a slow insidious, malignant poison in 1864," says Richard Schaefer, a historian in the archives section of the University's library system. That was 100 years before the US surgeon general first broached the topic.
White, who had little formal education, said alcohol damaged the brain and also wrote about the dangers of consuming too much salt.
"She said, 'the whys and wherefores of this I know not, but I give you the instruction as it is given me'. She said we need to take it very sparingly," adds Schaefer.
Adventists believe that their longevity is linked to their respect of the human body as a temple of the holy spirit.
"You are duty bound to reserve that temple for God's service, because he made us," explains retired Pastor Belgrove Josiah.
"Because of that principle we are very concerned about what we put into our bodies."
"We don't discard altogether medical science," Josiah adds. "Because medical science has a lot to do with guiding us on how to treat the body."
The Adventist's way of life involves a mostly plant-based diet, regular exercise and a commitment to celebrate the Sabbath as the day of rest.
A long-term study, which started in 1976, involving 34,000 members of the church, concluded that their lifestyle added a significant number of years to the average lifespan. Researchers identified "striking" protective effects of a vegetarian diet.
"When we look at just mortality, Adventists appear to die of approximately the same diseases but the age at which they die is much later," says Dr Larry Beeson, a professor in epidemiology at Loma Linda University.
Beeson has been involved in research on Seventh-day Adventists for over 50 years.
He argues that their healthy status is based on more than just diet. It is a complex mix of religiosity, spirituality and a person's understanding of their belief in God combined with other lifestyle components such as exercise and social support.
When I met Betty Streifling she was lifting weights at the gym in her retirement home. The 101-year old lives at the Linda Valley Villa, a community for old folks who are able to look after themselves. The average age is 90.
Streifling lives in her own apartment, a cosy home full of family mementoes and furniture made by her late husband. She attends an exercise class five days a week and takes a morning stroll in the street.
She puts her longevity down to "living a pure life, no alcohol, no tobacco, going to bed early, praising God for his goodness and for the blessing of life".
Every Friday evening Loma Linda falls quiet. On Saturday, Adventists take the day off from anything that could be considered work.
This includes browsing social media or, in some cases, watching television. For most, Saturday is a day to recuperate from the past week and to be with family and friends.
"Our Sabbath is more than just the church that takes place in the morning," says Dustin Aho, executive pastor at the huge University Church, which dominates the centre of town.
"The actual Sabbath day is in our name, Seventh-day Adventists, and so the day is crucial. What is more crucial to us is the time set aside for our community and for our God."
Peter Bowes reported on the community of Loma Linda California for the BBC's Heart and Soul programme. Listen to his full report here.
It is possible to buy a burger and fries in Loma Linda, although last year the city council banned the operation of any new "formula-based fast food restaurants that offer drive-through food service". The moved was designed to the "protect public health, safety and welfare" of its residents.
There are vibrant farmers markets and health food stores doing brisk business in nuts and leafy greens.
The Loma Linda lifestyle appears to add up to a potent recipe for wellbeing. It's not for everyone and most Adventists acknowledge that there are degrees of compliance to the dietary and social guidelines outlined by the church.
But there is little doubt that this community can expect to live significantly longer than most other people.
It is a compelling model for a world struggling with the scourge of obesity, diabetes and the chronic diseases of old age.