If you can’t pronounce the ingredient, don’t eat the food or use the product.

The Biology of the Possible

April 16th, 2014

mind2Hold on…We can think ourselves young?

That’s right.  The theory is called, variously, “the psychology of the possible” or the “biology of hope” or the “biology of belief.”  The general hypothesis that our beliefs might be one of the most important determinants of health and longevity.

Yes, beliefs.  Beliefs about our own health, about our body’s reliance and strength (or lack thereof), about our ability to thrive, about what it means to age.  What we think will happen, what we believe will happen, what we expect to happen may, in fact, happen.  And by “fact,” I mean statistically valid, scientifically derived evidence.  That kind of fact.  Our minds are just that powerful.

Suppose, like just about everyone in our culture, you grow up believing Old is Bad.  Suppose, after years of hearing jokes about being over-the-hill at forty, after seeing thousands of commercials for Depends and Ensure and cellphones with three-inch-high numerals, after watching hundreds of movies and television shows with cranky, crabby, asexual older people, suppose you begin to conflate “old” with sick, debilitated and diminished? With forgetful, slow, weak, timid and stodgy? Those last five adjectives are the most common negative, “unthinkingly accepted” stereotypes of “old” in western cultures, according to one group of researchers.  What we have here, researchers in the biology of belief field say, is a self-fulfilling prophesy of decline.  You get what you expect.

On the other hand, the Abkhazians, one of the healthiest, most vibrant, longest lived communities on the planet, have no word in their language for “old people.”  They refer to the eldest among them as “long-living people.” Note how “long-living” expresses an action, something they are in the midst of doing, while “old” is a static state, a pronouncement.  Are Abkhazians healthy and vital in old age in part because their language (their culture) allows – expects – them to be?  An intriguing idea.

The evidence about perceptions of aging (another way of looking at expectations about growing older) and what does in fact happen is pretty startling.  A Yale study concluded that perceptions held by people about aging had more impact on how long they lived than did their blood pressure, cholesterol level or whether they were smokers.  Regardless of age, gender, socio-economic status, loneliness or – get this – the actual state of their health, the men and women with positive views on aging lived 7.5 years longer than those who bought into the negative stereotypes.

Conversely, another study found that older adults who perceived their health as poor were six times more likely to die (within the time frame studied, that is) than those who thought they were in good health – regardless of their actual health status. One explanation is that if you think of illness and decrepitude as an inevitable part of aging, you are less likely to do anything to prevent, counteract or treat it.  Another study at Yale found a strong link between positive self-perceptions of aging and what’s called functional health – the mechanical well-being of the body, the ability to move and perform desired tasks without pain or injury.

            Clearly the path toward an invigorated and meaningful mid-life and beyond requires us to do more than jump on the superfood-du-jour/ exercise-fad-of-the-month bandwagon.  It requires us to question our beliefs about aging.  It requires us to create our own biology of the possible.

YES!  There is an anti-aging “magic bullet.”  It’s called physical activity.

What not to do

April 9th, 2014

retirement homeYou already know the grand trifecta of avoidable age-promoting, illness-enhancers, the short what not to do list: 1. Don’t smoke. 2. Don’t sit around on your butt. 3. Don’t eat junk. Also: Please please don’t fall for any product, therapy or treatment that sounds too good to be true. (It is.)

Now here’s some fresh advice, especially for mid-life and beyond:

Don’t use your chronological age as an excuse for not living a vibrant, full engaged life.
Have you heard yourself (or a friend/ colleague) say: “I’m getting too old to…” “I’m just slowing down…” “Of course I’m tired, I’m x years old now. All I can say is: Tell it to Jimmy Carter, who will be 90 this fall. Did you see him on the Colbert Report a few nights ago? Damn. I mean, damn. That guy is doing more in and for the world than any dozen people who clock in a half-century younger. Or take note of Deborah Szekely, a 92-year-old whirlwind of wise and wondrous activity. And etch this particular saying into your still plastic and craving-new-experiences brain:
You’re not slowing down because you’re getting old; you’re getting old because you’re slowing down.

Don’t opt out.
Retiring — if that’s what you want — could be a great thing. For my father retirement meant no more three-hour commutes, no more suits and ties, and no more being hated by everyone. (He was a Treasury Agent working for the IRS. Need I say more?) In his retirement, which stretched close to 30 years, he loved playing the stock market, playing tennis, wearing Brando-esque wife beaters paired 30-year-old, baggy brown trousers and eating Mounds bars. Who am I to say that wasn’t a meaningful life?

My own personal bar is set higher. I want to make a bigger, more consequential contribution during the third third of my life than I’ve been able to do previously. At the very least, I want to remain in the thick of it. Decades of credible research point to three habits/ attributes that distinguish the world’s oldest healthiest people from the rest of us: they eat mostly plant-based diets; they are physically active; they continue to be full, active and valued contributors to their communities.

Which brings me to my third piece of anti-aging, pro-wellness advice for mid-life and beyond: Don’t segregate yourself. Gated communities, retirement communities, resort communities…why circumscribe your world by living only with your “own kind.” We stay youthful and vibrant – and interesting – by exposing ourselves to new adventures, new ways of thinking, new people.

Research has consistently revealed the phenomenon of “environmental aging,” – which, no, is not toxicity in the environment making you older and unhealthier (although yes, it does). “Environmental aging” is the documented biological aging of those who surround themselves with chronologically/ biologically old people. Women who marry much older men, for example, accelerate their own biological aging. “Old” mothers who hang around and participate fully in the life and culture of being a younger mother are biologically younger than their age. Think about that when you make a decision to live in an age-segregated community.

Don’t always look back. Don’t assume your best years are behind you. Don’t assume because you haven’t yet done something, you can’t do it. Remembering and reminiscing is fine. And processing the past is an important part of growing into the next phase of your life – but so is looking ahead with curiosity, energy and excitement. In fact, that is the definition of a youthful, counterclockwise life.

 

Keep chemicals off your skin!  Read, really read, those ingredient labels for body products.

Biomarker#4: Fat-to-lean

April 2nd, 2014

fat to leanWhat’s the scariest number you can imagine? The cost of good health insurance? The number of messages in your inbox after a week’s vacation?

No. It’s your percentage body fat at mid-life.

Of all the biomarkers of age, of all the stats that determine how old you really are, biologically, percentage fat and its slender sibling, percentage lean, are among the most significant. The average American loses 6.6 pounds of lean body mass every decade from young adulthood into middle age. At age 45, the rate accelerates. The body of the average 25-year-old woman is 25 percent fat. The body of a (sedentary) 65-year-old woman is, gulp, 43 percent fat (men: 40 percent).

This increase in fat is accompanied by a decrease in muscle mass, which leads to a decrease in strength and general vitality. This condition even has a name – and it’s NOT “getting older.” It’s sarcopenia, Greek for reduction of flesh. It is a game-changer, or a paradigm shift, to consider that something we are accustomed to blaming on chronological age might be a “condition” caused not so much by the number of years we have lived but how we have lived those years.

The fat/ lean ratio is not just about appearance, although it goes without saying that, chunky-thighed, pudgy-cheeked babies notwithstanding, less fat and more muscle can make a body look decades younger than its calendar years. So appearance matters, yes. But there’s far more going on here. The high fat/ low lean thing – sarcopenia – causes, triggers or is closely linked to other markers of aging. Metabolism, for example. Young people, with lower percentages of fat have higher metabolisms. That’s because one pound of fat burns two calories a day, and one pound of muscle burns 35. We’re not slowing down because we’re older. We’re slowing down because we’re, well, fatter.

In addition to slowing down the metabolism – making it, need I add, easier to gain even more fat – high body fat is related to increased glucose intolerance which leads to insulin resistance on the path to type 2 diabetes. Not a road one wants to travel. High body fat ratio is also implicated in elevated bad cholesterol and “old” arteries (ones that do not dilate fully).

But wait! There is a cure for sarcopenia!

And no it is liposuction. No, it is not Human Growth Hormone or DHEA. And, sorry, the cure cannot be found in the supplement/ nutriceutical/ pharmaceutical/ anti-aging commercial marketplace, which is chockful of products that tout “extreme muscle builders” that “mobilize fat” to give “the best body ever.”

If you take moment to follow up those claims like I did, you’ll discover that the top-selling fat-busting/ muscle-building supplement, Hydroxycut, has encountered some major problems, like: jaundice, seizures, cardiovascular problems, liver damage and one documented death. The FDA ordered a recall back in 2009, but the product line is still available everywhere. Don’t buy it.

So what’s the cure? You know what I’m going to say…

Exercise. Movement. Physical activity.

The results are astonishing. And documented.

Stop. Breathe. Chronic stress harms the hippocampus, the brain’s main memory center.

Sitting is the new smoking

March 26th, 2014

no sittingGiven that life is hazardous to your health, and that we all have a 100 percent chance of dying (yes, I’m sorry, it’s true!), it may come as no surprise that an everyday, normal, seemingly innocuous activity is turning out to be super-bad for us.

Yep. I’m taking about sitting.

We now sit for more than half of our waking hours – many of us for significantly more than that. I’m here to tell you (and by “here” I mean sitting at my favorite coffee hang-out with my laptop) that a growing body of research shows that people who spend many hours of the day glued to a seat die at an earlier age than those who sit less—even if those sitters exercise. (Back to that last bomb in a moment…)

A recent meta-analysis of the results of 18 studies (including close to 800,000 participants) found that those who spent the most time sitting increased their risks of diabetes (112%), cardiovascular diseases (147%), death from cardiovascular causes (90%) and death from all causes (49%) compared to those who sat fewer hours. In a 12-year study of more than 17,000 Canadians, researchers found that the more time people spent sitting, the earlier they died—regardless of age, body weight, or how much they exercised. As if that’s not enough, the American Institute for Cancer Research now links prolonged sitting with increased risk of both breast and colon cancers

Sitting apparently suppresses the production of an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase, which is essential for turning bad cholesterol into good. It also damps down the expression of a key gene that helps prevent blood clotting and inflammation. Sitting can also lead to insulin resistance and trouble metabolizing sugar.

But, wait…what about those of us who exercise every day, who follow – exceed! – the guidelines for physical activity. Surely this dire research does not pertain to us (and by “us,” I mean me.)

Sorry.

A consistent body of emerging research suggests that committed gym- and trail-friendly exercisers who otherwise sit most the day may face the same health risks as their completely inactive counterparts. It’s a bit like smoking, explained one of the Canadian researchers involved in several of these studies. “Smoking is bad for you even if you get lots of exercise. So is sitting too much.”

And guess what? Outside of regularly scheduled exercise sessions, it turns out that active people sit just as much as their couch-potato peers. In fact, regular exercisers may make less of an effort to stay active outside their designated workout time. (One study found that exercisers are about 30% less active on designated exercise days than on non-exercise days.) Yikes.

What to do? Uh…sit less.

How about standing (as I am now doing, with my laptop on the kitchen counter) instead of sitting when you go online? Standing desks (not to mention treadmill desks) are all the rage now. This not-terribly-attractive furniture may have started out as a fad. Consider it a health and fitness product. Maybe even necessity. How about converting some TV-watching couch potato time into stand and stretch time? Suppose, when you have to sit, you take a 2-3 minute active break every hour?

Join me.

Stay energized with vitamin B-rich foods. (Leafy greens, beans, meat, seafood, and eggs are good sources.)

Biomarker #3: BMR

March 19th, 2014

BMR-Calculator-2.jpg,q831e7c.pagespeed.ic.MQ-uYBglQlAnd now…back to biomarkers, those statistical snapshots that can help us figure out how old we are biologically and then can track our counterclockwise movement as we live healthier, more active, more engaged lives. I’ve already written about resting heart rate and blood pressure as important biomarkers. To review: Low resting heart rate = good. Low blood pressure = good. “Good” means fit and biologically youthful. With Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), the opposite is true. A high BMR is associated with biological youthfulness.

So, what’s BMR (sometimes also referred to as Resting Metabolic Rate, which is not the same. but is enough the same for our purposes)? BMR is a measurement of the amount of energy we expend at rest. It’s the energy the body uses to maintain itself, the energy expended by heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, nervous system, all the internal organs that support life. If we lie in bed, absolutely still in twitchless slumber – or, less appealingly, if we found ourselves in a coma – we would still be expending energy. That’s our personal BMR. Although the mathematical calculations to get to BMR are mind boggling (at least my mind boggles), the measurement itself is easily understood. It is expressed in calories. Back to that in a second.

First, here’s something pretty interesting: About 70% of a human’s total energy expenditure is due to the basal life processes within the body’s organs. About 20% of our energy expenditure comes from physical activity and another 10% from thermogenesis, or digestion of food. Which kinda puts exercise in perspective, doesn’t it? And almost makes you want to do an over-eating, under-exercising experiment to see if you can make the math work in your favor. Spoiler alert: You can’t)

So why would a higher BMR be associated with biological youthfulness? It’s because BMR is strongly linked to muscle mass. The greater the muscle mass, the more felicitous the lean-to-fat ratio (as in more lean, less fat), the higher the BMR. Muscle is metabolically active. It uses more energy just to maintain itself than does fat. So an in-shape, leaner body burns more calories and registers a higher BMR. Men, by virtue of their generally bigger bodies and genetically determined greater muscle mass, have higher BMRs than women. Which is why your husband, most infuriatingly, can eat twice what you do and not gain a pound.

It is stated in the literature that “BMR decreases with age” and that, more specifically, our “metabolic rate goes down about 2 percent or more per decade after age 25.” Well, sort of. Yes, BMR decreases –  but not because years pass. It’s because muscle mass decreases. Here’s what Tufts university researchers say: “Older people’s reduced muscle mass is almost totally responsible for declining BMR.” In other words: You can have a major effect on your BMR by increasing and maintaining muscle mass. Thus BMR is yet another biomarker over which we have considerable control.

So, how to determine BMR:
1. Easy (and not terribly accurate) Here is link to a BMR calculator. Here’s another one. The problem: They both use your chronological age, making assumptions about muscle mass that may not be true for you.
2. Expensive (and accurate) Find a sports or health clinic that uses indirect calorimetry to measure BMR. It involves breathing into a mask/ apparatus attached to a computer with sophisticated software that measures the oxygen/ carbon dioxide mix. You have to be capable to truly relaxing and zoning out with a mask over your face in a clinical setting. And willing to pay $150 or so.
3. Easy, inexpensive, accurate. This assumes you already own a heart monitor, the kind with the watch and chest belt. Make sure you’ve recently/ accurately input your weight and height (and gender, of course). Strap it on before going to bed and press the start button when you are comfortably situated and just about to fall asleep. The next morning, see how many calories you burned while asleep in how many hours, divide by the hours, then multiply by 24 for your personal BMR. Do this several nights and take the average as you may have a particularly restless night that would skew the results. Try it!

Looking younger is not the same as being younger.  Focus your efforts on heart, lungs, arteries and muscles – not crow’s feet.

Stack the deck in your favor

March 12th, 2014

prevention cure

“What’s all that?” the woman I was sitting next to at breakfast last week asked.  She was referring to the small pile of pills on my placemat.  I started to explain.

     “This one is a multi-vitamin,” I said, popping it in my mouth. She nodded.  “And this one is extra calcium.”

     “Oh,” she said, shaking her head, “my bones are just great.  I don’t need that.”  She was a (chronologically) 60-ish, smallish white woman, so I kind of doubted that.  But I said, “That’s great.  So when did you last have a bone density scan?”  She’d never had one, it turned out.  Her bones were “great” because she’d never broken any.

     “Most of the rest of these are supplements are to boost immunity and bolster heart health,” I told her, as I swallowed a B vitamin, a D, turmeric, Alpha-lipoic acid, L-carnitine and CoQ10. 

     “Oh, I’m healthy,” she told me, adding – with a mixture of personal pride and, it seemed, concern for me — “I don’t need to take any of that.”

     “I’m healthy too,” I said (attempting – I am afraid unsuccessfully – not to be defensive).  “You know,” I added (trying – I am afraid unsuccessfully — not to sound all lecture-y), “It’s easier to preserve health than it is to come back from disease.”

     Well, she wasn’t buying that one either.  “My mother is 93,” she said, “so I ‘m not too worried.”

     I finished taking my pills, washed down with double-strength green tea, and tucked into my usual breakfast of Greek yogurt, blueberries and almonds.  Here’s what I didn’t say:

     My grandmother lived to 94 and died in her own bed, her only illnesses being a mild case of diverticulitis and a dry eye problem solved with nightly drops.  She was of sound mind and body – and especially spirit – until she died in her sleep.  My great grandmother (aka “Old Oldie,” who, readers will recall, shows up in Counterclockwise) lived past 100, descending three flights of stairs every morning to bake breakfast breads for the family.  Until the morning she didn’t.  My mother, recipient of this amazing genetic heritage, died at 77 after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s five years before.

     Which is to say:  It’s a blessing to have healthy, long-lived relatives. It is a blessing not a guarantee of your own health.  Being an active participant in your own health – especially when you are healthy – is not a guarantee either.  I know that.  Shit happens.  But you can stack the deck in your own favor by accepting responsibility for your wellness.  That’s what I wanted to tell the woman who sat next to me at breakfast.

Flossing as an anti-ager? Yep. Periodontal disease has direct links to systemic inflammation and cardiovascular risks.

How old is your heart?

March 5th, 2014

heartThe true age of your heart – the biological age, not the birth date age – means a lot when it comes to living a vibrant, energetic youthful life for as long as you can.   Last week I wrote about blood pressure as a biomarker of age.  The week before, I wrote about resting heart rate.  Both of these markers are related to the strength, health and resilience of your heart.

 What ages the heart?  I bet you guess. 

 Smoking. 
Obesity – especially extra padding around the middle. 
A heart-unhealthy diet (junk, fried anything, meat and more meat).
Inactivity.
High blood pressure. 
Low “good” cholesterol.
Unmanaged stress.

The World Health Federation estimates that at least 80 percent of premature deaths (the ultimate ager, right?) from heart disease and stroke could be avoided if the  main risk factors – smoking,, unhealthy diet and physical inactivity – were controlled.  Yes, 80 percent.  And, of course, that same trifecta of badness is implicated in many other diseases of “aging” and chronic conditions that make life far less pleasant than it could or should be. 

Suppose your parents had/ have heart problems or heart disease.  Does that doom you to a rapidly aging heart, a heart that is biologically older than your chronological age?  No.  There is strong and compelling evidence that people with a family history of heart problems can still have a lower “heart age” if they practice a healthy lifestyle. 

This is good news for me.  My father had (and died from) coronary artery disease.  He never had a heart attack.  And he didn’t die young. (He was in his 80s – unlike his father who died of a heart attack at 50.)  But the last few years of his life were not good.  He was weak, increasingly debilitated and then bedridden.  His lifespan exceeded his healthspan.  That’s not what I want for my future.

So I am doing everything I can to keep my heart (and the rest of me) youthful.  And, really, this is not “work.”  It is committing to – and deeply, deeply enjoying – an active, healthy lifestyle. 

Want to take a test to see how old your heart is?  Sure you do.  Here it is.

When I took the test, I was informed that most women my age have hearts that are 6 years older than their chronological age.  My heart?  It was 17 years younger.

 

Act young.  But not in a creepy way.

BIOMARKER #2: Blood pressure

February 26th, 2014

blood pressureWe’re talking BIOMARKERS again this week (and for the next few weeks). Biomarkers are, you might remember from last week’s post, statistical snapshots – based on solid research – that can help us determine how old our bodies are. Which is, birthdays not withstanding, how old we really are.

Last week I wrote about resting heart rate. This week’s biomarker is blood pressure.

First, a little primer: Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of arteries. Blood pressure measurements are given in two numbers. The first number (systolic blood pressure) is the pressure caused by your heart pushing out blood. The second number (diastolic blood pressure) is the pressure when your heart fills with blood. The safest range, often called “normal” blood pressure, is a systolic blood pressure of less than 120 and a diastolic blood pressure of less than 80. This is stated as 120/80. Elevated blood pressure increases the risk of heart attack and stroke and, if left untreated, can reduce life expectancy by 10 years or more.

An increase in blood pressure has always been taken as an inevitable consequence of aging. But what it is, is a consequence of a progressive lack of elasticity of the arteries along with a weakening of the heart muscle. So are those changes the natural, inevitable consequences of the passage of time?

Some artery “hardening,” and thus some elevation in blood pressure (the systolic number), may come with age as well as some (perhaps small) lack of efficiency in the heart muscle. But it is not so much the passage of time as the accumulated effects of unhealthy living that lead to high blood pressure. And, of course, it’s the usual suspects, the poor habits that have become increasingly ingrained in western culture.  You know what they are, folks: smoking, consuming high (bad) fat food, eating foods high in sodium, weighing more than is healthy and not exercising.

Normal, or not-scarily-low blood pressure (achieved without medication) is a sign of a strong, efficient heart and healthy, elastic arteries. Normal or lower blood pressure, then, is a biomarker for youth. Maintaining a consistent “normal” reading for systolic pressure as the years go by is a biomarker of youth. So aim for under 120/80. Forever.

There is, however, a measurement problem. We all get our blood pressure checked when we go to the doctor’s office. It doesn’t matter why we’re there, that’s the first thing that’s done. But that reading may be falsely high. We’re generally not thrilled to be at the doctor’s office. We’re worried or concerned, which means we’re stressed. And we probably cooled our heels in the waiting room for a while. Also a stressor. And we’re wondering just how much the insurance will pay.

Here’s what I do to try to get a good reading: I ask the nurse to give me a moment before wrapping the cuff around my arm. I sit up straight with my feet firmly planted on the floor and take several big, deep breaths. I relax my shoulders, place the palms of my hands on my thighs and close my eyes. Just for maybe 15 seconds. I’ve tested this more than a few times, first getting the immediate measurement, then mindfully relaxing. It’s pretty astonishing. Try it.

You can’t use blood pressure as a biomarker if the number you’re getting is physician-assisted high blood pressure.

Stop. Breathe. Chronic stress harms the hippocampus, the brain’s main memory center.

How old are you, really?

February 19th, 2014

pulseWhen you tell someone how old you are, are you counting from the year of your birth? 

Then you’re lying about your age!

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, in just about every interview I’ve given and, of course, in my book, Counterclockwise:  Your birth date is not your age.  Or, rather, your birth date is merely your chronological age, which, after 40, is an increasingly useless, misleading and more often than not downright erroneous number.  Your true age, the age that will affect your health, energy, vitality, longevity – you name it — is your biological age, the age of your body.

It’s easy to identify (and identify with) chronological age.  We celebrate chronological age every year with parties and presents and candles on a cake. Not to mention “you’re over the hill” birthday cards that are supposed to be funny.  And aren’t.  We group ourselves (or are summarily grouped according to) our chronological age.  But is chronological age a useful, truthful way of looking at how old we are?  

No, according to those who study the aging process.  What we want is to determine our biological age.  And then, my dear counterclockwise readers, we want to turn back that biological clock.

For this and the next several posts I’m going to explore and explain BIOMARKERS, the quantifiable sign posts of biological age, statistical snapshots based on solid research that can help us figure out how old we are inside. Common biomarkers include resting heart rate, blood pressure, cholesterol level, lean-to-fat ratio, aerobic capacity, strength, flexibility.  You get the idea.

Here’s the logic of biomarkers:  If population studies show that a particular biomarker tends to go up (say, cholesterol) or down (say, muscle strength) with chronological age, then determining your own biomarker and stacking it up against this research will give us a sense of our true age.  So a by-birth-certificate 50 year old with biomarkers consistent with a by-birth-certificate 40 year old is, biologically speaking, closer to being 40 than 50.

Let’s start with one of the easiest biomarkers to determine: resting heart rate.  The lower it is (within reason), the fitter you are.  (Some medications lower the heart rate. This doesn’t count.) The fitter you are, the younger you are biologically. A slow resting heart rate is usually due to the heart getting bigger and stronger with exercise, and thus more efficient at pumping blood around the body.  The more blood pumped with each beat, the fewer beats per minute. 

What’s your resting heart rate and what does that number mean?  Simple.

Take your pulse first thing in the morning, while lying in bed. I am a fan of the under-the-jaw pulse.  I can never seem to find and hold onto my wrist pulse.  But whatever works for you is fine.  Count the beat for 30 seconds (then double it).  It’s a good idea to do this several mornings and take an average.  Here is a chart that matches that number with various fitness levels at different chronological ages.. Now you are one step down the path of determining your bio age.

Next week:  Blood pressure as a biomarker.

Stay energized with vitamin B-rich foods. (Leafy greens, beans, meat, seafood, and eggs are good sources.)

Smog, clog — and HEALTH?

February 12th, 2014

mapIf you read last week’s post on the habits of the healthiest and longest lived cultures on earth – and of course you did! – you may have said to yourself: Sure, those folks who live in isolated villages in the Andes can live healthy lives. They are far from interstates and internet, from mochaccinos and McDonalds, from the toxins and temptations of modern life. Hurray for them. But, really, what can I learn from them? That’s not my life. That’s not me.

Me either. So now I’m going to tell you about extraordinarily health and long lived people who live in the belly of the beast, aka 21st century America. And not just America: California. And not just California: Southern California. That’s right, land of smog and clog, land of freeways and fast food. Yet, the healthiest and longest lived people in all of North American live here.

These folks have a 60% lower (men) and 76% lover (women) death rate from all cancers than the rest of us. Their lung cancer rate is 21% lower, colorectal cancer 62% lower, and breast cancer 85% lower.
Coronary heart disease is 66% lower for men, and 98% lower for women. They suffer far less from type 2 diabetes. They have lower blood pressure, lower body weight, and better lean-to-fat ratios. They report enviable levels of happiness and satisfaction. Oh, and they live longer than the rest of us — 6.2 years (men) and 4.4 years (women).

Who are they?

They are the extensively studied Seventh day Adventists of Loma Linda, California, and there’s a glimpse of the lifestyle that keeps them weller than well:

They exercise.
They avoid alcohol, tobacco and “mind altering substances.” (I’m afraid that means caffeine, but I choose not to think too deeply about this.)
They eat a well-balanced vegetarian diet rich in legumes, nuts, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
They work to create, nourish and maintain strong relationships.
They are involved in their communities.
They believe that good health is “a gift from a loving God who wants us to live life in its abundance.” (Personally, I could get behind a God like that.)
They believe that “to not take care of our bodies, which is a part of the stewardship of the earth, is an affront to our God.

I’m not proselytizing here. But, come on, these folks are kind of awesome, aren’t they? Here they are, crafting vital, ultra-healthy, meaningful lives right under our noses, living smack-dab in the same age-accelerating, disease-promoting culture we live in.

If you dismissed the health and longevity lessons of the Abkhasians, Vilcabambans, Hunzas and Okinawans I wrote about last week because their cultures and geographies were so very different from our own, you can’t do the same for these southern Californians…can you now?