Researchers are uncovering the secrets to why individuals in the southern California town of Loma Linda are living 10 years longer than the average American.
Located in San Bernadino County, Loma Linda is the sole blue zone in the United States, as defined by National Geographic Fellow and New York Times bestselling author, Dan Buettner. Blue zones started as a concept developed out of the demographic work by Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain in the Journal of Experimental Gerontology, which Buettner then built upon. Traditionally, blue zones are “heterogeneous populations where people are living statistically longer,” Buettner explains.
Most often, exercise and healthy eating top the list of wellness habits in blue zone communities; however, the Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda redefine healthy living by adding a new meaning.
Nestled into the desert mountains of southern California sits Loma Linda, known as “Beautiful Hill.” A quiet, suburban area of families, seniors, and college students, this community, including Loma Linda University School of Public Health researchers, is striving “to make a person whole,” mind, body, and spirit, while extending this philosophy to its surrounding communities.
Religious and Geographic Impact
Dr. Seth Wiafe, assistant professor at Loma Linda University School of Public Health, believes that religion plays a role in human longevity. He notes that most who live to and beyond 100 recognize peace, God, relationships, and food as active contributors to their health, and that they are all connected because they are “born spiritual by nature.”
Other researchers agree that religiosity affects overall wellness. Buettner credits some of this work to Dr. Gary Fraser, distinguished professor at Loma Linda University School of Public Health and an investigator of the Adventist Health Study. According to Buettner, Fraser has discovered that individuals who attend religious service once a week live 4 to 14 years longer than those who do not attend regularly or at all.
“It is mostly the social and spiritual environment that contributes to Loma Linda’s longevity,” Buettner said in an interview. “It is not as geographically defined [as other blue zones], it is more the cultural influence. The blue zone lies in their religion as opposed to a place.”
Researchers and Adventists alike, such as Wiafe, are working to extend this sense of community and wholeness into other communities near or around Loma Linda.
During a 2010 National Health Summit, Wiafe raised the question, “How can we turn red zones into blue zones?” This question has led him to Muscoy, a town nearby and arguably a red zone, to make a difference. As Wiafe notes, Muscoy has little to no street lights or pavement for people to walk and exercise. In communities struggling to provide adequate living situations and proper nutrition, it can be difficult to seek longevity and adapt blue zone characteristics and “make a person whole.”
Likewise, the Blue Zones Project strives to implement healthier environments and lifestyles throughout the United States. For example, the Blue Zones Project has spurred positive changes in beach cities in California, as well as within the states of Minnesota, Iowa, and Texas.
Through the Blue Zones Power 9, the Blue Zones Project is striving to make being healthy easier by “reverse engineering longevity,” Buettner said in an interview. The Power 9, adapted by areas of the world where people live longer, includes moving naturally, having a sense of purpose, having routines to reduce stress, eating meals in the late afternoon or early evening and not indulging the rest of the day, eating more plant-based, drinking not at all or moderately, attending faith-based services, fostering family connections, and choosing healthy social circles.
The majority of Adventists are vegetarian, bond through their spirituality, and come together for plant-based meals. These strong social connections encourage healthy behaviors and build a sense of community within Loma Linda, specifically.
Research suggests that “Seventh-Day Adventists, in particular, live their religious beliefs through their lifestyle choices, through their healthy diets, through their exercise activities, and social and emotional connections,” Dr. Kelly Morton, professor of Psychology and Family Medicine at Loma Linda University, said. “Those social connections actually support those choices.”
Furthermore, Dr. Hildemar Dos Santos, associate professor at Loma Linda University School of Public Health, has always practiced the Seventh-day Adventist faith despite growing up in Brazil, a traditionally meat-based culture.
“Eating meat was so into the [Brazilian] culture; that was tough,” Dos Santos said. “Adventists believe that our bodies physiologically were made to eat vegetables. Before God created the animals and man, he created the vegetables and fruits, for those to be food to sustain them.”
Seventh-day Adventists have created a culture promoting overall wellness. Specifically at Loma Linda University, it becomes easier to make healthier choices with plant-based food options and no alcohol or smoking on campus. The university's Drayson Center, whose purpose contributes to quality of life, also offers health services to the community, for college students and seniors alike.
Extending Wholeness Into "Red Zones"
Wiafe notes that through GIS, the Geographic Information System, food deserts and “red zones” can be identified and help in building healthier communities.
“In public health, you will hear many times about lack of resources,” Wiafe said. “In order for you to be able to make a promise and address the issues of people, you need to maximize your resources. We are using a system that will help us make better decisions, so that we can make better public health improvements in the lives of people. We want to avoid deserts of any kind, and the only way to do that is to map it out and that is where GIS helps us.”
Starting with a needs-based assessment, Wiafe and his students looked at the needs of Muscoy. Safety seemed to be the biggest interference with the health and wellness of Muscoy’s residents.
“If we want to promote exercise, physical activity, and the place is not safe, they cannot walk around freely,” Wiafe said. “We teamed up with the county department where they had a program to address some of these issues. The following year, we did another follow-up assessment and what came up was nutrition. In other words, food safety.”
Through these efforts, Wiafe is hoping Muscoy will be able to adapt blue zone qualities similar to Loma Linda.
“We try to model what Loma Linda looks like in those communities, and my hope is that over time, we will be able to achieve the blue zone,” Wiafe said. “I raised that question, 'How can we turn red zones into blue zones?' crying for help, if you will. This is not something that cannot be done, if we are able to work together as a team.”
Loma Linda University’s motto, “to make man whole,” continues to be the driving philosophy in bringing wellness to dire communities.
“To make man whole means to see individuals and all of their facets,” Morton said. “In order to make them whole and to bring them toward wellness, you have to see their emotional health, their spiritual and religious health, their psychological health, their physical health, their lifestyle health. Opening up all those components allows us to actually see the person and use all of those different facets of that person to move them toward wellness.”
Early Childhood Experiences Affect Wholeness
To measure the connection between lifestyle, diet, religion, and other various factors, Loma Linda University has conducted numerous studies on Seventh-day Adventists through the Adventist Health Study. More than 96,000 participants are included in the on-going study with more than 40 years of research.
One of the studies published in 2020, Adverse Childhood Experiences and Depressive Symptoms, by Morton and a team of researchers at Loma Linda University looks at the connection between longevity and adverse childhood experiences.
“Adverse childhood experiences include physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, and a lot of times poverty or having dysfunctions in the home related to drugs or alcohol,” Morton said. “People that have those early experiences actually have shorter lives. They die 20 years earlier than people who do not have those experiences. [Those experiences] actually change the threat centers of our brain, the amygdala, so that what happens is you are so attuned to threat that you see it everywhere. Your stress hormones are constantly bathing your body and telling it ‘threat is out there.’ That degrades your organ systems and leads to early death.”
Morton notes that the study found choosing a plant-based diet after adverse childhood experiences can lead to a longer life—a diet that many Seventh-day Adventists have adapted.
“In that study, we actually found that if you have four or more adverse childhood experiences, which is guaranteed damage, and you chose a healthy, plant-based diet—that could actually help you live longer,” Morton said. “Those that chose a healthy, plant-based lifestyle lived four to five years longer than the ones that did not make that choice.”
Growing up Adventist and being presented with a set of values, such as a relationship with God, exercise, and a healthy, vegetarian diet can be positive reinforcers for longevity.
“Like anybody, as a teenager or young adult you have to go through whatever treasure chest your parents gave you with tools and philosophies and decide what you want to keep and what you want to throw out. I had to ask if being Adventist was something that still matched the person I wanted to grow into. I completely resonate with the idea of working towards wholeness,” Dr. Penelope Duerkson-Hughes, Associate Dean for Basic Science and Translational Research at Loma Linda University School of Medicine, said.
One’s upbringing and environment can impact one’s adult experiences and the choices one makes. In struggling San Bernardino counties, making the healthier choice is sometimes not an accessible option in an environment also hindering movement and exercise. Someone raised as a Seventh-Day Adventist could be more likely to continue the healthy lifestyle and loving atmosphere they experienced as a child, leading to healthier choices and contributing to overall longevity.
Ethics of Longevity Research
As studies continue to examine longevity through participants' data, researchers are ensuring ethical research is conducted.
“The research that I have been doing has a lot to do with the definition of health,” Duerkson-Hughes said. “When you are looking at DNA sequences and trying to figure out what that means for a person’s prospects, how to handle, communicate, disseminate, and manage that information is full of ethical questions. Lots of times when you search for one thing, you find things you weren’t looking for and knowing how best to communicate that is full of dilemmas.”
All research conducted at Loma Linda University School of Public Health is reviewed with ethical considerations in mind. Morton specifically looks at all behavioral health studies on Loma Linda University’s campus, along with the help of other researchers. Consent is an ethical issue Morton emphasizes with participants.
“I try to put on the hat of a participant or patient,” Morton said. “Does this patient feel pressured or vulnerable and how do we combat those things? I tend to look at it less as a researcher and more as a mom, a daughter, so people are never misled, even unintentionally. I make sure it is truly in a language that they can understand. It’s not as easy as you may think.”
Participants give blanket consent. Since the scope of the research can change over time, participants are able to withdraw from a study any time, along with all their data.
“You want participants to feel they have a choice,” Morton said. “Everyone has a choice. They have a choice every single moment in the process, not just the day they decide. Our participants can continue to make that choice, even 17 years later, if that is your choice.”
Purposeful Wholeness Leads to Longevity
Loma Linda is making a person whole; spiritually, physically, and mentally with the Seventh-day Adventist faith at the center of it all.
“God’s purpose for us is to be connected with other humans as His creations and to be in charge and responsible for that creation,” Cristian Iordan, a pastor at Campus Hill Church, said. “The best people to take care of people are people. You don’t need a degree in mental health or medicine to take care of other people.”