In the midst of our burger-eating, screen-peering, stress-filled world, there are pockets of longevity and health, where habits and philosophies align to create communities where an unusual number of people live an unusually long time.
And studying these people has provided insight into how the rest of us might emulate them.
“I believe that it’s no coincidence that the way these people eat, interact with each other, shed stress, heal themselves, avoid disease and view their world yields them more good years of life,” writes Dan Buettner, who first wrote about these five areas a decade ago in The Blue Zones book.
He has since formed an organisation, the Blue Zone Project, to spread the word.
The five Blue Zones he identified are Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; the Ogliastra region of Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; and Loma Linda, California.
Buettner has worked with scientists from the US National Institute on Aging, academics, agencies and companies to bring about change in public health initiatives, restaurants and supermarkets, as well as individuals.
The Blue Zones Project has worked in 23 cities in the United States, improving school food, reforming local health policies and getting public works agencies to make streets more walkable.
Among the experts working on the project is Brian Wansink, a Cornell University professor who has long studied consumer behaviour. Much of his work has shown how easy some change is, particularly around our decisions about food, and how significant the effect can be.
Most of our food decisions, he says, are “mindless”, and changing our environment so that the mindless choice is the healthful one can go a long way toward improving our health.
Here we take a look at Loma Linda, the only Blue Zone in the United States.
It’s not a bathing-suit body that Daniel and Vicki Fontoura, and their neighbours, are after as they go about their days in perhaps the healthiest community in the United States.
It’s something so much more essential, a part of their very being.
The Fontouras, their three children and Daniel’s parents are among the 22,000 residents of Loma Linda, where as many as a third of the people are Seventh-day Adventists. Their faith instructs them to treat their bodies as temples: little or no meat or fish, no smoking or alcohol, plenty of exercise and a sense of purpose.
Spend a little time in Loma Linda, and what distinguishes it from, say, the adjacent city of San Bernardino becomes apparent.
The Loma Linda Market near Loma Linda University has bin after bin of beans and grains; there’s no meat section. There is a McDonald’s in a shopping centre, but it moved in only after a fight; a countertop poster advertises veggie burgers.
On a residential street, tables piled with grapefruit and oranges for sale – on the honour system – sit outside houses.
Sixteen-year-old Claire Fontoura says there are few overweight students at her high school. The cafeteria at Loma Linda University is vegetarian. Students attend chapel every Wednesday to, as the chaplain put it one recent morning, “stop stressing about tests, stop texting … put away our to-do lists.”
And the campus fitness centre, and its programmes on diet and exercise, are open to the community.
Studies have shown that Seventh-day Adventists, who have a broad range of ethnic backgrounds, live as much as a decade longer than the rest of us, which led to Loma Linda being identified as one of five Blue Zones.
“I don’t think we’re so bold as to say that the only way to have this eight- to 10-year advantage is to be an Adventist,” said Fontoura, whose title at Loma Linda University Health is vice president for wholeness. “We do view it as the core. But how people get there is up to them.”
At 100, Benita Welebir is chatty and observant. What’s extraordinary about her longevity is that it’s not. In Loma Linda, she’s just another active old person.
One of her neighbours at the Linda Valley Villa is 101, another is 100, and several belong to the 95-plus club.
After the morning exercise class, several residents take a walk outside; others gather in the common area of the senior apartment building. (According to Census data, just 55,000 Americans reach 100; that’s 0.02% of us.)
“I am extremely energetic, but I also believe in full rest. If you have full rest, you can go like a little speedster,” Welebir says.
The mother of five says her legs are wearing out a bit. That may be, but she walks the halls at the 100-unit Linda Valley Villa half a mile at a time. She does her own hair.
“I’ve always been happy, and if I’m sad, I know I’ll be happy again.”
At 6:30 one morning in the Fontoura family kitchen, there’s lots to eat: a two-tiered server full of mangoes, bananas and oranges; hot rice cereal, whole-grain bread made and brought over that morning by Fontoura’s mother. When 10-year-old Caleb adds jam, it’s a veneer, not a slather. Everyone says grace before they eat.
Vicki, who teaches nursing, and Carsten, eight, are pescatarians; Caleb, 10, and Claire are vegetarians; Caleb is pretty adamant, “really dogging me” over an occasional chicken order at Chipotle, Fontoura says.
The Fontouras live in a roomy tract house on the east side of Loma Linda, and everywhere there are family photos. The parents belong to the Lopers, a running club; the children participate in sports.
Saturday is the Sabbath, time off from jobs and homework. The family goes to church and might gather with other families for potluck meals, go to the beach or take a hike. They relax and rejuvenate.
“The Adventist experience is only 20% or 30% healthier than the average American,” says “Blue Zone” author Buettner. “If you ask most Adventists who their friends are, 80% or 90% are other Adventists. You’re less likely to engage in risky behaviour because of your religion and more likely to be cared for when you’re older.”
Fontoura’s job is to think strategically and deliberately on how the hospitals’ and college programmes can share what they’ve learned about health.
“I think we view our church as blessed with a special health ministry,” he says. “How do we impact the world in positive ways?”
The Wholeness Institute, part of Loma Linda University Health, was created to be more deliberate in answering that question, mindful of other faith traditions.
One challenge is to figure out the factors that can accomplish the most – perhaps working to reduce hospital readmissions, reduce stress, increase faith-based commitments.
“We are surrounded by what could be considered grey zones” of poverty, of food and of a built environment that discourages physical activity, he says.
The San Bernardino-Ontario-Riverside area has some of the highest poverty rates in the state. “What are the factors that if they were teased out would be really effective?” Fontoura asks. “What are we doing that is sustainable, scalable?” – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service