For a team focused on longevity science, we were taken aback this week by the realization that we’ve never written about Blue Zones! As it turns out, we have one right here in the US: Loma Linda, California. It’s a city located about 60 miles east of Los Angeles and its population of 25,000 includes the biggest concentration of centenarians in the country.
You’ve probably heard about Blue Zones before, and might know that these are areas around the world where people tend to live substantially longer than the general population. The Blue Zone concept was initially coined by Gianne Pes and Michel Poulain who identified Sardina, Italy as a region having an unusual concentration of centenarians. As the story goes, they studied the demographic data of the island in detail and drew blue circles on a map around the villages where people lived the longest referring to them as “blue zones.”
Building on this finding, National Geographic Explorer fellow, Dan Buettner set out to identify other areas around the world with a high concentration of people over 100 years old to determine what characteristics they had in common. Buettner found five of these areas around the globe, and after some analysis, found that they all shared four lifestyle factors:
- Healthy diets—plant-centric diets, reasonable portions, and moderate wine consumption
- Exercise frequency—moving every single day
- Right outlook—living with a sense of purpose
- Strong social connections—feeling a part of the “tribe,” putting loved ones first, and having a sense of belonging
These findings map out nicely with what our team at Nowgevity considers to be the pillars of living a longer, healthier life (with one noted exception: sleep!). Nevertheless, these observational findings confirm what many scientific studies suggest: when it comes to longevity, lifestyle is at least 80% of the equation.
What Makes Loma Linda Different from the rest of the US?
Given that chronic disease afflicts such a big percentage of the aging population in the US, we were curious to learn what sets Loma Linda apart. Interestingly, about half of the city’s population is Seventh-day Adventist—a Christian denomination that places particular emphasis on health and well-being. As such, Loma Linda has become a beacon of health both inside and outside of the Adventist church. It has a well-established hospital system and an adjacent health science university. Loma Linda is also widely known for the Adventist Health Study (AHS), a six decades-long medical research project designed to measure the link between lifestyle factors, disease, and mortality.
According to research, residents of Loma Linda live an average of 10 years longer than the general population of the United States. Like other blue zones, residents of Loma Linda engage in the four key lifestyle factorsy:
- Plant-based Diet—In Loma Linda around 10% of residents are vegetarian or vegan and consume diets rich in fruits, vegetables, grains, low-fat dairy, legumes, nuts and seeds. Additionally, many residents abstain from alcohol use and some even abstain from caffeinated beverages like coffee, tea, and soda. The Seventh-day Adventist Church places a special emphasis on plant-based diets and adherence to the kosher laws found in the Bible. Lots of studies show that consuming plants, particularly plant protein, is associated with a lower risk of all-cause and cardiovascular disease mortality.
- Exercise—Adventists advocate daily exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle. Residents of the city can be found in the local gym located on Loma Linda University’s campus, on a day hike in the nearby mountains, or engaging in natural movements that train muscles and improve balance in their homes and at local parks. Group exercise is also popular. There are bike clubs, running clubs, and there’s even a local pickleball league. The type of exercise doesn’t seem to matter much, but getting moderate exercise (~30 minutes, 5 times per week) goes a long way to help residents maintain a healthy Body Mass Index (BMI) and improve cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF). CRF is an indicator of mortality and individuals who have better CRF are more likely to survive into old age.
- Sabbath Keeping—A positive outlook and strong social bonds are important for a long, healthy life, and as a practice, Sabbath keeping ticks both boxes. As a denomination, Adventists keep the Sabbath in adherence to the fourth commandment found in Exodus. The Sabbath is a weekly occurrence from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. During Sabbath hours, residents abstain from work, making it a time to release stress and give themselves a chance to rest. Residents also spend time in worship, enjoying their loved ones, and helping their community, making it a time of enhanced spiritual and social connection. There isn’t a lot of research on the effect of the Sabbath on health and longevity, but we did find that Sabbath keeping is associated with more social support and better physical and mental well-being. One study even showed that deaths in Israel (another Sabbath-keeping location) decreased on the Sabbath but went back up at the start of the week, a trend that wasn’t observed on any other days of the week or religious holidays.
Loma Linda is a special sort of place, but we can take the principles its residents live by and apply them to our own lives in small ways. A meatless Monday, at least 10 minutes of exercise every day, or just a few hours of downtime with friends and loved ones once a week can start you on the road to blue-zone living.
Go Deeper: Watch Dan Buettner’s TED Talk “How To Live To Be 100+”.
Check out these blue zone recipes that you can make in under 30 minutes.
Curious about Sabbath keeping? Check out Walter Brueggemann’s book Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now to learn more about this unique spiritual practice as an antidote to our 24/7 lifestyle.