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This is the 3rd article in our Blue Zones series.

In this blog post, we will focus on a Blue Zone based in Loma Linda, California: a community of around 9000 Seventh-Day Adventists who live as much as a decade longer than the average American.

Similar to the Okinawan residents, which we discussed in our last article, the Loma Linda population’s longevity is largely attributed to their vegetarian diet as well as other lifestyle factors like regular exercise, alcohol abstention, and no smoking.

Here we will examine the scientific studies of this population since 1960, and conclude with lessons learned about the Seventh-Day Adventists’ secrets to longevity.

What the Research Reveals

Loma Linda has been explored through a series of Adventist Health Studies (AHS) conducted by Loma Linda University, designed to examine the link between lifestyle, diet, disease and mortality in the Seventh-Day Adventist population.

There has been a total of three studies. The first two were held over the last 40 years and focused on Adventists in California. The third, ongoing study examines Adventists throughout the US and Canada.

The First Study

The first study (Adventist Health Study or AHS) began in 1960 and observed 22,940 California Adventists.

It included intensive follow-up studies five and 25 years later.

Here are some of the findings that demonstrate the health benefits of their lifestyle:

  • Adventist men live 6.2 years longer than non-Adventist men, while Adventist women live 3.7 years longer than their non-Adventist counterparts.
  • Death rates from all cancers were 24 percent lower for Adventist women and 40 percent lower for Adventist men, compared to non-Adventists.
  • The prevalence of specific cancers was also lower in Adventist men and women: lung cancer (79 percent) colorectal cancer (38 percent), and breast cancer (15 percent).
  • The rate of coronary heart disease was 34 percent lower for Adventist men and 2 percent lower for Adventist women, compared to non-Adventists.

The Second Study

The second study (Adventist Health Study 1 or AHS-1) was conducted from 1974-1988 and included 34,000 California Adventists over the age of 25.

Unlike the previous research which focused on mortality, the purpose of this second study was to understand what Adventist lifestyle factors are most important in protecting against chronic disease.

The findings uncovered a set of simple health behaviors that have been practiced by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church for more than 100 years and which likely contribute to their long life spans.

On top of the list are not smoking and eating a mostly vegetarian diet!

The research also revealed important details about the Adventist diet and disease prevention:

  1. Reducing red and white meat consumption was associated with a decrease in colon cancer.
  2. Legumes also appeared to protect against colon cancer.
  3. The risk of heart attack was reduced up to 50 percent by those who ate nuts several times a week.
  4. Eating whole wheat bread (versus white bread) reduced non-fatal heart attack risk by 45 percent.
  5. Drinking five or more glasses of water a day reduced the risk of heart disease by 50 percent.
  6. Men who consumed a lot of tomatoes reduced their prostate cancer risk by 40 percent.
  7. Drinking soy milk more than once a day reduced prostate cancer by 70 percent.

The Third Study

The third major Adventist study (Adventist Health Study 2 or AHS-2) began in 2002 and is funded by the National Cancer Institute. This study includes 96,000 Adventists aged 30 to 112 who come from all 50 US States and Canada.

This latest ongoing research continues to explore the links between lifestyle, diet, and disease among Seventh-Day Adventists.

At the beginning of the study, each participant filled out a 50-page diet and lifestyle questionnaire. Here is a summary of their dietary habits:

  • 8 percent are vegan (no red meat, fish, poultry, dairy or eggs).
  • 28 percent are lacto-ovo vegetarian (consume milk and eggs, but no red meat, fish, or poultry).
  • 10 percent are pesco-vegetarian (eat fish, milk, and eggs but no red meat, or poultry).
  • 6 percent are semi-vegetarian (consume red meat, poultry, and fish less than once per week).
  • 48 percent are non-vegetarian (eat red meat, poultry, fish, milk, and eggs more than once a week).
  • Also, only 1.1 percent are current smokers while 6.6 percent drink alcohol.

The study is ongoing, but here are some preliminary findings:

  1. Non-vegetarian eaters are (not surprisingly) heavier than their vegetarian counterparts. For example, 55-year old male and female vegans weigh about 30 pounds less than non-vegetarians of a similar height.
  2. The 5-unit BMI difference between vegans and non-vegetarians suggests that vegetarianism protects against obesity as well as type 2 diabetes. Pesco-and semi-vegetarian diets afford only intermediate protection.
  3. The more you adopt a vegetarian diet, the less likely you are to have high cholesterol levels, diabetes, high blood pressure and metabolic syndrome.
  4. The prevalence of type 2 diabetes in vegans and lacto-ovo vegetarians is half that of non-vegetarians.
  5. Vegetarian diets also protect against cardiovascular diseases, some cancers, and total mortality.

Key Lessons Learned From Loma Linda

Here are eight lessons learned from Loma Linda—great tactics to adhere to if you want to live a long and healthy life:

  1. Take Breaks: The Seventh-Day Adventists take a weekly break (24 hours) from daily life to focus on family, God, friends, and nature. They believe this relieves their stress, strengthens their social communities, and provides healthful, consistent exercise.
  2. Maintain a Healthy Body Mass Index (BMI): A low BMI is normally associated with lower blood pressure, blood cholesterol and incidence of cardiovascular disease. Eating a whole food, plant-based diet is the easiest and best way to keep your BMI down.
  3. Get Regular, Moderate Exercise: The good news is that you do not have to run a marathon! Routine, low-intensity physical activity like a daily walk is enough to reduce your chance of cancer and heart disease.
  4. Spend Time With Friends: A supportive, like-minded community is an important component of healthful living.
  5. Give Back: Giving back ensures you have a sense of purpose. When you focus on others, you are happier and less depressed.
  6. Eat an Early, Light Dinner: A lighter meal at the end of the day will promote better sleep and a lower BMI.
  7. Drink Lots of Water: The men in the study who drank 5-6 glasses of water daily reduced their risk of a fatal heart attack by 60-70 percent, compared to those who drank considerably less.
  8. Eat a Mostly Plant-Based Diet: Nonsmoking Adventists who ate two or more servings of fruit daily had 70 percent fewer lung cancers than nonsmokers who only ate fruit once or twice a week.  Likewise, Adventists who consumed legumes (peas, beans) three times a week had a 30-40 percent reduction in colon cancer. Lastly, Adventists women who ate tomatoes at least three to four times a week reduced their chance of getting ovarian cancer by 70 percent, compared to those who ate tomatoes less often.

In the end, the research in Loma Linda provides enlightenment when it comes to understanding the Holy Grail of longevity.

No smoking, low alcohol consumption, time with loved ones and a mostly plant-based diet are the cornerstones of any long and healthy life.

Rosane Oliveira, DVM, PhD

President & CEO, Plant-Based Life Foundation | Dr. Rosane Oliveira combines a lifelong passion for nutrition with 25 years of genetics research to create programs that help people develop healthy habits on their journey towards a more plant-based lifestyle. She is a Visiting Clinical Professor in Public Health Sciences and was the founding director of the first Integrative Medicine program at the UC Davis School of Medicine. She completed her postgraduate studies in Brazil and did her postdoctoral training in immunogenetics and functional genomics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.