We interviewed Deborah Kotz who has been following trends in medical studies about the Adventist Heath Study and its findings
Q. What role do genes play in longevity? A. There's a recognition in the science and medical world that we can live longer, that we have some control over our life expectancy. Genes play a role. If you have parents and grandparents who lived beyond a hundred it is probably a good possibility that you can, too. However, they don’t necessarily doom you to a shorter life. They find that Adventists can be a very genetically diverse population but they still live longer than their neighbors - anywhere from five to seven and even 10 years longer than some of the communities that live around them. With Adventists you have the full range of nationalities represented. You have African-Americans, you have whites from every country in Europe, you have Hispanics, and you have Asians. So when you study this group of people and you see certain similarities in terms of their health advantages you can say, “Okay, well it’s probably not due to their genetic similarities. It’s probably due to something in their lifestyle.”
Q. What have we learned beyond the genetic influence? A. The initial studies of Adventists found that because they were vegetarian, they eat more nuts. So originally we were saying in nearly 1990, “Hey, let’s all the walnuts. Let's all eat almonds!” This is a good first step. But with the Adventists it's much more holistic. It's not just the nut consumption; it’s their whole vegetarian lifestyle, which includes a lot of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. And beyond that, they believe in exercise. They have a strong sense of community, and we now know that loneliness is one of the biggest risk factors for heart attacks. So the Adventists, in having these community connections, are really also helping to extend their lifespan.
Q. What can we take away from this? A. There was a recent study in the British medical Journal that was looking at strokes, and it was looking at populations and saying, “Which part of the population actually had a lower stroke risk?” They put together four different lifestyle approaches and found that these approaches actually halved a person's risk of having a stroke. And these include: exercise; eating four to five servings of fruit and vegetable a day; not smoking; and a minimal intake of alcohol.
Q. What can medical professionals do to help? A. Health coaches should be partnering with doctors to give patients advice that doctors either may not be able to give or may not have the time to give. They could be a nutritionist, or an exercise physiologist, or just anyone who's trained to teach people how to live a good lifestyle. Anything that can give them real solutions. How do they go about exercising if they don’t want to join a gym? How do they go about working movement into their life? How do they shop at the supermarket for the right kinds of foods? Things like that, when a doctor says, “Hey, that's not my job.”
Q. Beyond the physical aspects are there attitudinal factors? A. There is definitely scientific evidence showing that loneliness can really be bad for the heart - can actually lead to heart attacks in some people. So you want to stay socially connected, especially as you get older. The advantage of living in a religious community is that when you do get older and you do retire from your job, it's not like all of your friends vanish, which is something that happens to many older people in our society. The minute they retire from their jobs they find that all the social connections are gone. If you belong to a church, if you go every week, people are checking in on you. If you are widowed or you no longer have any family you are living with, your friends are going to come over and just check up on you. They may notice that you're mentally deteriorating. And they may say to you, “You’ve got to go to a doctor.”
Deborah Kotz is a Senior Writer for US News and World Report who specializes in medical news.