Last week I talked about the villagers of Tianna. Located in central Sardinia, their remarkably low mortality rates and high life expectancies have resulted in a percentage of centenarians three times greater than in the rest of region. Sardinia is one of five identified “Blue Zones,” a registered term that applied to areas around the globe – five in all – that stand out for their extraordinarily long-living populations. While these areas are geographically diverse and seemingly disconnected, there are common denominators in the lifestyles of those living in a Blue Zone.
They are all areas where people move naturally, where physical activity for all is part of a daily routine. These routines also include rituals that serve to reduce stress. Life in these zones also includes some form of a plant-based diet. They are communities of people where loved ones come first and are kept close; where a social network of friends surrounds them. People in these zones are connected by faith and a religious community in which centenarians are an important part.
Of the five Blue Zones identified, only one is in the United States. It is in Loma Linda, California and is maybe the healthiest community in the United States. A community of about 9,000 Seventh-day Adventists in the Loma Linda area make up the core of America’s Blue Zone region. These people live as much as a decade longer than the rest of us. Some of their longevity is due to a rigid regime of vegetarianism and regular exercise.
Much can be attributed to their health ministry. Within this, as well as other Blue Zone communities, there is a strong connection between longevity and faith. According to research, people who pay attention to their spiritual side have been shown to have lower rates of cardiovascular disease, depression, stress and suicide. Other studies have shown that religious people in general tend to be less depressed and less anxious than people without a spiritual or religious belief.
In a study released last November, researchers at Northwestern University showed that America’s Amish community, an old religious sect and direct descendants of the Anabaptists of 16th-century Europe, reap many of the same health benefits as in the Blue Zones. With their practice of manual agrarian labor and social separation from the rest of the world, Amish have developed a significant edge in late-life health, with lower rates of cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Contributing to good health in late life was the fact that almost all elderly people in the Amish community are cared for at home, by relatives.
While research such as this has shown that lifestyle practices greatly influence a long healthy life, scientists still do not have all the answers as to exactly why. Family matters. Social ties are important. Some scientists believe having strong social ties to be one of the greatest guarantors of happiness and a link to health benefits such as lower blood pressure, less heart disease, better weight control and healthier blood sugar levels. The trick is in adopting those modifiable things that can apply to our everyday lives.
We also cannot overlook the connection between longevity and faith. Adherence to a religion allows people to relinquish the stresses of everyday life to a higher power. That a person practices those beliefs with others seems also important.
A survey by the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that 33 percent of those who attended religious services every week and reported having close friends at church said they were extremely satisfied with their lives. Only 19 percent of those who went to church but had no close connections to the congregation reported the same satisfaction.
As pointed out by the New York Times’ Jane E. Brody, there is no longer any doubt that what happens in the brain influences what happens in the body. This requires a different way of practicing medicine.
The evidence seems clear that patients’ health and quality of life could benefit if their doctors gave more attention to spiritual health. According to a recent Viewpoint article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, research suggests a clear relationship between religious participation and patient health. Doctors need to begin to accept the value of spiritual approaches to medical care, particularly at the end of patients’ lives.
In spite of the research, a focus on spirituality is too often considered outside the realm of modern medicine. Most physicians have not received training in spiritual care and most patients do not receive it, though it could benefit both patients and clinicians.
Patients often discover strength and solace in their spirituality, the authors of the Viewpoint wrote, and clinicians facing professional issues such as burnout could benefit from attending to their own spiritual health.
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.