The Blue Zones: A Recipe for Brain Health and Longevity, Part 3: Loma Linda, USA
You may be surprised to learn that your genetics only influence about 20% of your health, brain function and longevity. Your lifestyle choices and diet can play a big role in determining the remaining 80%.1 National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner wanted to understand which lifestyle factors lead to longer, healthier lives, so he researched the longest-lived populations, and named the regions the Blue Zones. Although geographically diverse, each Blue Zone shares common lifestyle factors like diet, stress reduction, sense of purpose and connection, and physical activity. They also have higher than average numbers of healthy centenarians with lower-than-average risk of chronic diseases (e.g. neurodegenerative, cardiovascular diseases, and cancers). Quite amazingly, people living in the Blue Zones have some of the lowest rates of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease compared to the rest of the world.
In part 3 of this article series, we travel to the Blue Zone region of Loma Linda, USA, to understand how they incorporate diet, stress reduction, sense of purpose and connection, and physical activity into their daily lives. And, we’ll also explore how the rest of us can enjoy longer, happier lives (and better brain health) by taking cues from their lifestyle and applying it to our own.
Loma Linda, California
Perhaps surprisingly, one of the Blue Zones can be found in the United States, 60 miles east of Los Angeles. Here, a community of Seventh Day Adventists lives in Loma Linda, CA. Loma Linda is a model for bringing the tenets of the Blue Zones into practice while surrounded by the standard American lifestyle. A unique aspect of the Seventh Day Adventist religion is embracing a holistic approach to health. On average they tend to live up to 9.5 years longer than their American counterparts, with lower rates of chronic diseases. The modifiable lifestyle factors that reduce the risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease, such as diet, physical activity, and stress management, are foundations of the Adventist lifestyle.2
The Seventh Day Adventists faith encourages little to no meat consumption. Many Adventists follow a vegetarian diet. The longest-lived members of this community eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts. In fact, the unsaturated fat in nuts is thought to account for the reduced risk of heart disease in this population. They eat their largest meals early in the day and a light dinner is served early in the evening. This practice tends to lower body mass index and leads to better sleep. This eating pattern aligns with the well-studied MIND and Mediterranean diets, which are rich in brain-healthy unsaturated fats and colorful plant foods. Results of the first Adventist Health Study also suggests that within the California Adventist population, men drinking five or more glasses of water daily had a 54-67% lower risk of fatal heart attack than those who drank two or less.3
In keeping with their faith, Adventists recognize the Sabbath each week as a time to focus on family, God, nature, and connection. This day is a day of rest, providing a break from the busyness of everyday life. Some use the day to get outside and hike, putting aside work, school, and housework for the day. Others dedicate the time to reconnecting with others. They also use the day to reconnect with their faith.
Sense of Purpose and Connection
The Adventist religion advocates volunteer activities and serving a greater purpose. They focus on helping others, which can help stave off depression. Every Sabbath, Adventists spend the day connecting with family and others in the Adventist community. This sense of connection to like-minded friends provides a sense of safety and reinforces healthy habits.
With a faith focused on health, Adventists prioritize regular physical activity. Adventists tend to get regular, low-intensity exercise, like hiking. Walking, hiking, swimming, and cycling are important endurance activities, along with building strength and flexibility. Regular exercise is known to have beneficial impact on cardiovascular and neurodegenerative risks, and it appears to be an important contributor to the Adventists’ long, healthy lives.
Take a Cue From Loma Lindans
Even within the United States the Adventist community has created their own brain health and longevity haven, showing us the more traditional diet and lifestyle of other Blue Zone cultures can be adopted within a modern world. Their religion focuses on caring for their bodies with regular exercise, a mostly plant-based diet, a strong community, and service to others. They provide a model that can help you adapt the common practices of Blue Zones in your own life.
Read parts 1 and 2 of this series, where we travel to Ikaria, Greece, and Sardinia, Italy.
- Christensen, K., Holm, N. V., Mcgue, M., Corder, L. & Vaupel, J. W. A Danish Population-Based Twin Study on General Health in the Elderly: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/089826439901100103 11, 49–64 (2016).
- Sherchan, P. et al. Effects of LIfestyle Factors on Cognitive Resilience: Commentary on “What This Sunny, Religious Town in California Teaches Us About Living Longer”. Transl. Stroke Res. 2020 112 11, 161-164 (2020).
- Chan, J., Knutsen, S.F., Blix, G.G., Lee, JW. & Fraser, G.E. Water, Other Fluids, and Fatal Coronary Heart Disease The Adventist Health Study. AM. J. Epidemiol. 155, 827-833 (2002).