Imagine, at the age of 100, mowing the lawn and walking miles per day, with other neighbors in their nineties. If it seems impossible to live long enough to reach the triple digits, let alone arrive at the century mark in good health, simply consider life in Loma Linda.
Loma Linda, California is a small city about 60 miles east of Los Angeles. It is also home to a relatively large number of centenarians and is therefore the only recognized “blue zone” in the United States, where the average individual life span is much greater than other American cities.
Outside of the U.S., there are other blue zones with rather special attributes that may facilitate reaching the age of 100. Nicoya, Costa Rica has exceptionally hard water, rich in calcium and magnesium. The radon-enriched thermal baths of Icaria, Greece are credited as a factor contributing to the fact that residents of the island are four times more likely to reach the age of 90 than Americans, and do a better job at avoiding chronic disease as they age.
However, the remarkable longevity of Loma Linda’s residents is uniquely inspiring because the health of its residents is attributed to a lifestyle that can be adopted almost anywhere. While good genetics is probably essential to reach the age of 100 and beyond, up to 80% of longevity depends on decisions people make about their lifestyles, which could translate into enjoying good health until nearly 90 years old.
About half of Loma Linda’s 23,000 residents are practicing Seventh Day Adventists, known as Adventists, which sets Loma Linda apart from otherwise analogous places in the U.S. The Adventists advocate against smoking, and encourage staying lean, engaging in regular physical activity, eating nuts, and sticking to a vegetarian diet. And in addition to a focus on God, they promote strong social and family ties and volunteerism.
Adopting the Adventist lifestyle could add up to 10 years to a person’s lifespan. A paper published in 2001 in the Archives of Internal Medicine explored this very possibility. Due to their more homogeneous lifestyle choices, Adventists provide an opportunity to study certain behaviors in the absence of other confounding factors. The authors of the paper examined data from a large sample of over 34,000 Adventists over the course of 12 years, and contend that California Adventists’ life expectancies exceed that of any other natural population.
But the best news for those who are not looking to convert to the Adventist religion?
“It seems likely that the effects of these particular variables on life expectancy can be applied to Adventist and non-Adventist populations. There is no reason to suspect that Adventists are biologically different in their responses to environmental exposures.”
Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, has studied Loma Linda and other longevity hot spots across the globe. One key recommendation he makes for anyone looking to make healthier choices comes from another blue zone, Okinanwa, Japan. The people of Okinawa form personal networks that provide support throughout their lives called moais, and he stresses how important such groups are for making successful changes. “We know that social behaviors are as contagious as a catching a cold…we’re setting up this network that has the right contagion flowing through it,” Mr. Buettner says. The “right contagion” flowing through moais includes walks and plant-based pot luck dinners.
Dr. Ellsworth Wareham of Loma Linda is a walking—and driving!—billboard for an Adventist lifestyle program. He will turn 100 this October. Dr. Wareham is impressive because of his age, but even more so because of his vitality. When speaking by telephone, it is difficult to picture a centenarian on the other end of the line: his voice is clear and steady, his mind sharp, and his conversation full of details of his active life that would be ordinary for a person in their 60s or 70s, but very uncommon for those fortunate enough to be planning a 100th birthday celebration. He claims to have no aches or pains and hasn’t had a cold or flu in years, maybe decades.
At the age of 95, Dr. Wareham retired from a very long career as a heart surgeon. When asked what he had been up to recently, he elaborated on his activities the prior day. He drove alone about 70 miles each way to attend a bris for a friend’s son. It was his first time at such an occasion. Even after so many years, he is still having new experiences. Most days are less eventful. He resides with his wife of 64 years, Barbara. He says he is leisurely about starting his day and has breakfast around 9 or 10 o’clock, which always includes a banana and one other fruit, nuts, and a whole grain cereal such as Grape Nuts or Shredded Wheat. He then will do chores around the house and care for his yard. He still mows his own lawn. He is able still to go up and down a flight of stairs with ease, and finds that he ends up climbing them several times a day, which adds to his daily activity. He is an avid reader, but “Never fiction. I’m too lazy for fiction.”
He eats two meals per day, and has the second in the late afternoon. Mrs. Wareham prepares vegetables and legumes. “Occasionally she’ll make one of those meat analogs—you know what I mean, fake meat,” he says. As a vegan who never really cared for dairy products, he admits, “If I digress…I may have a piece of salmon.”
Maybe there will be salmon on the menu when his five children, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren come to celebrate his centennial this year. If more Americans put a plant-based diet and active lifestyle on their own menu, Loma Linda might not be the only blue zone in the United States, a place where centenarians still mow their lawns.
Edited by Dana March. Photos by Patrick Strattner for New You magazine.