May 8, 2012
By Nancy Haught, The Oregonian
Long before the culture around them embraced vegetarian diets, the search for vitamin D and the elusive goal of a good night's sleep, Seventh-day Adventists had staked their lives on health principles laid down by their founders more than 150 years ago.
Ellen White, who wrote scores of books for her fellow Adventists, summarized the "Eight Laws of Health" in the 1860s. Today, as many mainstream Christian denominations are losing members in the United States, Adventists are growing steadily, partly because of their emphasis on wellness.
But it's the longevity of Adventists that has garnered them attention in recent years. A landmark study by Dan Buettner identified Loma Linda, Calif., with its high density of Adventist residents, as one of the world's five blue zones, where the number of centenarians (people who live 100 years or longer) is 10 times that of the United States.
An Adventist health study of 34,000 California church members found that, on average, men lived 7.3 years longer and women 4.4 years longer than their fellow Californians. Researchers identified five behaviors embraced by Adventists for more than 100 years, that could increase life span by up to 10 years: not smoking, eating a plant-based diet, eating nuts several times a week, regular exercise and maintaining normal body weight.
The point of aspiring to wellness is not simply to live longer, but to serve God more effectively, says Scott LeMert, senior pastor of Sunnyside Seventh-day Adventist Church in Southeast Portland. Adventists believe that human beings are a combination of body and spirit that results in a soul.
"If you have a light bulb and you run electricity through it, you produce light," LeMert says. When physical well-being and religious faith come together "in the image of God," a person has the power to think more clearly and act in better ways. LeMert is quick to point out that not all Adventists follow the eight laws to the letter. Some church members eat meat or dairy products and eggs, for example. Not all of them exercise every day or avoid smoking or alcohol. And while he and other Adventists believe the eight laws are based in Scripture, they are not pre-requisites for salvation, he adds.
Beverly and James G. Foster of Beaverton, who both grew up in Adventist homes, never saw the health guidelines as tenets of faith as much as personal and family habits. The couple, in their mid-50s, were raised as vegetarians who didn't drink coffee and observed the Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday as a matter of course. They raised their two adult children the same way.
Both Fosters are active in the Hillsboro Seventh-day Adventist Church, which holds regular potluck suppers (where dishes that contain meat are clearly labeled). Exercise classes, stop smoking seminars and Bible studies are common. The Fosters emphasize that the guidelines are not guaranteed tickets to longer lives.
"They're recommendations, promoted in Scripture, not as entrees into heaven but to make us more healthy, productive and useful," James G. Foster says. It's not easy, he adds, for a life-long Adventist to separate his faith from his healthy habits. "This is the way I was raised."
Recent research has looked at the connection between good health and spiritual attitudes. Studies suggest that people who attend religious services regularly and feel supported by like-minded communities say they are happier. Ellen Idler, director of the Religion and Public Health Collaborative at Emory University, says faith may be essential when religious groups promote a healthy lifestyle.
"If you want people to follow a restrictive lifestyle over their entire life, you have to have something that holds them together and perpetuates it," she says. "You could take religion out of the equation, and it would fall apart.
The idea of treating a whole person, inside and out, is becoming a goal of medical care, in general, but Adventists have promoted it for a long time.
"Faith, hope and fear, these are powerful emotions," says Ed Hoover, manager of wellness services at Adventist Medical Center in Southeast Portland. "They draw people into life and give people a reason to be involved in health-promoting practices. Fear and anger and despair kind of cause the human being to collapse in on itself.
"Emotional states impact the immune system in powerful ways, more powerful perhaps than diet and exercise," he says.
Margaret Ohlson, who lives in Husum, Wash., and works in Hood River, became an Adventist in 1984, attracted by the emphasis on vegetarianism and the idea that a church community can support people as they work on changing their behavior and making healthier choices.
"The Bible teaches in Romans and elsewhere that those who have control over their appetites and passions have a clearer perception," Ohlson says. "Change is progressive. We need to be heading in a healthier direction all the time, but not go too fast or not do it right. Then we get discouraged." That's the advice she gives shoppers who come into the natural food store where she works, interested in becoming vegetarians or vegans. Sometimes she talks about her Adventist faith, sometimes she doesn't.
"For me, this is a God-directed path," she says. "A person could enjoy full health following these principles, but the fullness for me in life is following God. Good health is just a tool to accomplish that more fully."
Loma Linda's only blue zone in the U.S.
Dan Buettner wrote the book on blue zones, literally. He and his research team have identified five regions in the world where the number of centenarians – people who've lived 100 or more years – is 10 times that in the United States. The phrase "blue zone" refers to the blue ink that researchers used to circle study regions on a map.
Three blue zones were featured in "The Secrets of Long Life," Buettner's 2005 cover story in National Geographic: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; and Loma Linda, Calif., with its high concentration of Seventh-Day Adventists. Nicoya, Costa Rica, and Ikaria, Greece, are also blue zones.
Buettner has written two books on blue zones and helped create a website where visitors can calculate their own life expectancy and review life-lengthening principles.
Buettner's "Power 9" points are:
1. Just move – as often as you can.
2. Purpose now. Why do you wake up in the morning?
3. Down shift. Shed the stress.
4. 80 percent rule. Stop eating when your stomach is 80 percent full.
5. Plant slant. Limit meat and eat beans, lentils and nuts.
6. Wine @ 5. One or two drinks a day, preferably wine, with friends or at meals.
7. Belong. An overwhelming majority of centenarians belong to a faith-based community.
8. Loved ones first. Keep your family close, nurture your partner if you have one and parent well if you have children.
9. Right tribe. Find a supportive social circle that shares your values.
Seventh-day Adventists' origins and numbers
Seventh-day Adventists were part of the Christian Connection, a group of believers that flourished in the 1840s as William Miller of New York state began to predict the second coming of Jesus.
Over time, some adventists argued that the Sabbath should be observed on the seventh day of the week – Saturday – as it had been established in the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible. Seventh-day Adventists officially organized on May 21, 1863, with 125 churches and about 3,500 members.
The 2010 U.S. Religion Census, released May 1, estimates the number of Adventists in the nation at about 1.2 million, 40,000 of them in Oregon.
The growth rate for Adventists in Oregon is about 29.9 percent, compared to 14.5 percent for Catholics (the largest faith group in Oregon) and 41.8 percent for Mormons (the second largest).
Published: Tuesday, May 08, 2012
By Nancy Haught, The Oregonian