Adventist health studies indicate a long, healthy life is no accident

Adventist health studies indicate a long, healthy life is no accident

Commentary | Gary Fraser

Adventists die later and enjoy greater quality of life

People continuously seek the secrets to a long, fulfilling life. As members of a church that has historically emphasized physical health as an important component of spiritual health, we are in a unique position to find answers.

This is the whole purpose of the Adventist Health Studies at Loma Linda University. The first study, conducted from 1976 to 1988, examined 34,000 Adventists in California, establishing firm connections between lifestyle, disease and longevity.

We learned that California Adventists live years longer than non-Adventist Californians: 7.3 years longer for men, 4.4 years for women. We also discovered that five simple behaviors can increase lifespan by about two years each, for a total of 10 years: eating a plant-based diet, never smoking, consuming nuts several times per week, exercising regularly and maintaining a normal weight.

Our second and much larger study, which focuses on cancer, began in 2002 with almost 100,000 subjects in North America. We have not yet received enough data to begin analysis, but we're following up on the clues we learned from past research.

Adventist males in California appear to have a 40 percent reduction in cancer risk; for women the reduction is about 25 percent. While few Adventists smoke, much of this risk reduction appears to be related to factors other than tobacco.

Here are some of the things that we know. Consuming meat appears in many cases to increase the risk of commonly occurring cancers. On the other hand, eating fruits, tomatoes, and legumes (including soy) appears to be protective. Even in less common cancers that are better known for being related to smoking and alcohol, diet may play a significant role in reducing risk.

It can be difficult to prove a link between particular foods and some cancers. But one case where the connection appears to be very real is meat and colon cancer. We've seen that non-vegetarian Adventists have about an 85 percent higher risk of developing this disease than their vegetarian counterparts.

Our past research suggests that eating legumes may protect against colon cancer, but further study is needed. It's also possible that consuming legumes may somewhat counteract the negative effects of eating meat when it comes to colon cancer, but this too needs further exploration.

Another possible connection we've seen is between soymilk consumption and prostate cancer. Our study showed that men who drank soymilk daily had about a 30 percent lower risk than men who never drank it. Additionally, other studies have suggested that eating tomatoes, legumes and dried fruit may be protective.

We discovered a strong connection between bladder cancer and certain behaviors. Being a current smoker increases the risk almost six-fold over people who have never smoked. Even past smokers are more than twice as likely to develop the condition. We also ascertained that meat-eating Adventists had more than double the bladder cancer risk of vegetarians.

Pancreatic cancer, known for being especially devastating, does not appear to be affected by whether a person is vegetarian or not. However, eating legumes, dried fruit and possibly even vegetarian meat substitutes may offer some protection. This is another question we need to explore further.

In the case of breast cancer, there is pretty clear evidence that physical activity relates to lower risk. Among study participants with breast cancer, those who exercised the least frequently were more likely to be diagnosed at an earlier age.

Beyond cancer, we have discovered interesting connections in the realm of cardiovascular conditions and diabetes. When it comes to heart attacks, blood lipids, diabetes and high blood pressure, vegetarians have the clear advantage and vegans fare even better.

A big reason is that vegetarian Adventists are thinner. The average Adventist woman eating a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet weighs 19 pounds less than a non-vegetarian. A vegan woman weighs 34 pounds less than a meat eater. Vegetarian men weigh 16 pounds less than meat-eaters, and vegan men weigh 32 fewer pounds.

This can make the difference between being healthy or being overweight. In a nation with an obesity epidemic, this difference is striking and should perhaps influence doctors to advocate for plant-based diets.

It isn't exactly news to say that diet can contribute to or prevent heart-related conditions. But it might be surprising just how much of a difference it makes.

Adventist men who eat meat are about twice as likely to die of a heart attack than their vegetarian peers. The difference is even more pronounced in women, but in their case, it tapers off considerably during their elderly years.

Which plant foods are consumed also makes a big difference. We were the first researchers to notice that eating small quantities of nuts at least five times per week cuts heart attack risk in half. We, along with other researchers, have also noted that eating whole grains is protective against heart disease, too. People who eat whole-grain bread are roughly 50 percent less likely to have a heart attack than those who choose white bread.

In the end, death is inevitable. And Seventh-day Adventists die of the same causes as everyone else. But they die later. Some might think the extra years are feeble ones. They ask, "Why would you want to live longer?" But we have also measured quality of life related to physical and mental health. At virtually every age, the bottom line is that Adventists score better.

Adventist Health Studies would never receive grant funding from the United States' National Institutes of Health just to benefit Adventists -- we believe the Adventist experience will benefit all Americans and hopefully the global community. But as our understanding of health continues to grow, we should be the first to take full advantage of the knowledge we gain and live as examples to others.

--Dr. Gary Fraser is director of the Adventist Health Study, professor of medicine, and professor of epidemiology at Loma Linda University