Want to live a long life? Ignore centenarians, watch Seventh Day Adventists

If a centenarian jumped off a bridge while eating a bag of jelly donuts and chain-smoking, would you do it, too?

That's basically the message in a new column by LiveScience's Christopher Wanjek, which looks at why the people who live the longest should not necessarily be health role models for the rest of us.

It seems that longevity goes hand-in-hand with some funny yesbuts. What you eat and how active you are doesn't seem to matter ... if you're one of the very, very lucky folks with a genetic predisposition toward surviving into extreme old age. For everybody else, there's pretty good evidence that healthy habits actually do extend your lifespan. Part of what fascinates me about the studies that show that is that they often compare Seventh Day Adventists to the general population. Why? Because Seventh Day Adventists generally don't eat meat (the first time I ever saw lentil loaf, it came from SDA cookbook), and are discouraged from booze, cigarettes, drugs, and caffeine. It also doesn't hurt that they run a massive, and well-respected, healthcare system, centered around Loma Linda University. Makes 'em easier to study like that.

For the general population, there is a preponderance of evidence that diet and exercise can postpone or ward off chronic disease and extend life. Many studies on Seventh Day Adventists — with their limited consumption of alcohol, tobacco and meat — attribute upward of 10 extra years of life as a result of lifestyle choices.

Image: Elderly People - sign on Warwick Road, Olton, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from ell-r-brown's photostream


  1. “It seems that longevity goes hand-in-hand with some funny yesbuts.”
    Great sentence!

  2. I’ve recently heard that only using Seventh Day Adventists is not as beneficial as using a mix of Adventists with Mormons. Mormons have similar rules about smoking and drinking but are allowed to eat meat. This removes a false correlation between vegetarianism and long life.

  3. This is exceptionally poorly cited.  Never mind the fact that moderate alcohol consumption is associated with longer lives, and that I don’t think I’ve read any studies tying meat and caffeine to life expectancy that adequately addressed the other lifestyle choices made by vegetarians or coffee junkies.  The problem with studying people who are part of a self-selected group is that they are very different in terms of behavior.  Maybe they’re less accident prone.  Maybe they’re just less likely to get obese.  Maybe they tend to live in environments with fewer carcinogens.  Maybe the fact that they’ve got a good healthcare system has something to do with it.  You can’t draw any specific conclusions from this, other than that you might want to just pack it in and go live as a Seventh-Day Adventist.  

    1. Why Patrick Austin, take note that Maggie’s post is more of a note-type post of the type “hey look, this is interesting” as opposed to the longer and well-researched articles Maggie often submits. She is not claiming that each and every characteristic of the SDA lifestyle has an effect on longevity, but that they share a toolkit of behavioural traits which when practised as a package seem to result in a longer lifespan. Well worth continued research, surely?

      Might I just observe in response to Patrick and other commenters that the “moderate alcohol consumption is a good thing” argument is itself used very much out of context pretty much every time it comes up in popular media (including the comments here)? Last time I looked into this, the studies actually said the “glass of red wine a day” that is supposed to be so beneficial to our health has benefits specifically for people who are already prone to diseases of heart and veins as a consequence of an unhealthy lifestyle, inasmuch as it makes the blood thinner and thus less prone to clotting… Even so, that’s only one effect; surely alcohol still has other, less beneficial effects on other parts of the system, but lay news releases typically draw out one effect and are silent about the others. Admittedly though, it’s been a decade since I last read up on the literature for this issue.

      1. Actually, having one or two drinks per day reduces your chances of getting a cold by 60%. There are other benefits than cardiac health. But it also increases your chances of other problems, including cancer.

    2. You are right that one cannot draw specific conclusions from this kind of population data alone. Maybe they, as a population, are also less likely to suffer the effects of second hand smoke, drunk driving, alcohol-associated domestic violence, etc. Not drinking alcohol would probably reduce one’s risk of being accident-prone or obese. Not associating as much with people who smoke would expose one to fewer carcinogens. 

  4. I’m not sure living an extra 10 years like some kind of monk is a strong selling point of the lifestyle.  Ok.. so you live 10 years longer.  Did you enjoy your life?  Or were you miserable just so you could say you lived 10 years longer than you thought you would? 

    1. That’s one way of looking at it, but I think it’s flawed. If that were indeed the choice – a lifetime of misery for a few extra years… of misery – then I agree it wouldn’t be worth it. But that rests on the premise that being healthy = being miserable, when it seems to me the opposite is true. Being healthier means feeling better all the time, with a better chance at greater longevity just an extra bonus.

      That’s not to say that the idea of striking a reasonable balance isn’t valid – of course it is. (I certainly don’t like a monk.) Just that we should be more honest about what goes on either side of the scale.

    2. I get what you’re saying but – do you know any actual monks?  I’ve met a few, and they all seemed like very happy, relaxed people.

      The Christian ones also drank wine in moderation (not just at sacramental doses), but as has been pointed out, there are pretty good signs moderate drinking is linked to better, not worse, health.

      1. Hence the words “some kind of monk”.   And yes I do know some monks.  The buddist monks seem very cool.  The Franciscans seem more like uptight assholes to me.

      2. In a way, you do get to relive your thirties – or maybe someone else’s.   

        In your fourties and fifties you’ll probably be as healthy and energetic as a someone who’s in their thirties but eats crap, smokes, and doesn’t exercise enough.

        So, in your thirties you have someone else’s twenties.  In your fourties and fifties maybe you get someone else’s thirties, in your seventies you get someone else’s fifties…

    3. These stories should warn people that those extra 10 years come at the end of your life– you don’t get to relive your thirties, you get 10 more years in adult diapers.

    4. Actually, you live your whole life as a monk, then at the end you get ten extra years to live as a mummy.

  5. I used to work for Adventist Health System — great group of people, fairly conservative in general…about what you’d expect from a company run by a conservative religion.  ANYWAY.  If you look at their Wikipedia page, remember two things.  1, they’re a non-profit, so they keep their profit margin about .8%, if I remember correctly.  2, they do about 80-90% charity. I’m not sure what the charity number is for for-profit hospitals, but I was still impressed that they bring in billions while writing off 4x their revenue number.

  6. If you want to live longer, and enjoy those extra years, besides the eating and sleeping right, you might want to think about learning, and practicing t’ai chi. 

    You’ll live longer and have more fun doing it.  It puts lead in your pencil.

  7. Live cleanly, but have some fun.  Red wine and dark beer have been proven over and over in the peer-reviewed literature to be beneficial in moderation.  So you can have some fun; you don’t have to be a zealot.  Extremism is the BANE of mankind.

    1. Alcohol may reduce your risk for heart disease, but it is less likely to extend your life if you are an alcoholic. If you are an alcoholic, you are more likely to take out a few people with you as well. This is why population-based studies are so compelling. They look at overall morbidity and mortality in the real world. (For example, nicotine may be beneficial in the treatment/delay of Alzheimer’s disease, but the risks of smoking tobacco will on average take about 7 years off your life.)

      1. The risk of smoking *cigarettes* takes an average of seven years off your life. Smoking pipes and cigars lowers your life expectancy by a few months.

  8. The first thing I thought of when I saw this post was a quote attributed to Ambrose Bierce in “The Devil’s Dictionary”:
    Certain old men prefer to rise at dawn, taking a cold bath and a long

    walk with an empty stomach and otherwise mortifying the flesh.  They

    then point with pride to these practices as the cause of their sturdy

    health and ripe years; the truth being that they are hearty and old,

    not because of their habits, but in spite of them.  The reason we

    only robust persons doing this thing is that it has killed all the

    others who have tried it.

  9. Wait, what?!  Watching what you eat, exercising, and not putting poisons into your body makes you live a longer and healthier life?!  No WAY!  Seriously?!

    This will change EVERYTHING!

  10. I grew up Adventist and strangely enough over the years Adventist have become less extreme about “the health message”. Today it seems to be more about extreme limitations on what to consume and less about ascetic rejection of everything. Growing up I couldn’t have marshmallows because of the animal byproducts in it. Today things seem more relaxed. 

    I would be interested to know if there is a difference in the health of those SDA and Mormons who adhere strictly and those who use the “health message” as serious guidelines.

  11. The SDAs don’t eat meat, drink alcohol, use drugs, smoke, or improve the flavor of their food with chilies or spices.  Many of them are also not big proponents of sex for fun.  My guess is they don’t actually live 10 or 15 years longer than the rest of us… it just seems a lot longer.

  12. When I was seven years old my dad’s dad died of a heart attack. My dad made sure I watched them carry his body out of the house and told me that his father died at 58 because he smoked and drank for most of his life, and it was up to us to avoid that fate. My dad had his heart attack at 63, but his girlfriend got him to hospital fast enough to have a cardiologist blow out his arteries. Thats a five year gain. But my dad never really exercised. When I turned 40 I changed from occasional to full time bicycle commuting. I think the best I can hope for is another five years.

  13. I think it may be possible that some of Adventists famed longevity may be due to the founder effect. 
    In 1910 there were fewer than 100,000 Adventists, and most of these were descended from a small group that originated in the 1840s.  I take my own family as an example.  My Grandmother was born into an Adventist family with roots in the earliest days of the movement.  She had eight siblings all of whom lived past ninety, the oldest dying at 106 and the youngest still alive at 93.  The interesting thing is that half of her siblings remained Adventist and abstained from alcohol, meat, coffee and cigarettes; the other half abandoned the religion and drank, smoked, and ate as they pleased.  Lifestyle seemed to play almost no part in their longevity.  Like it or not longevity appears to be genetic.

  14. I didn’t know that SDAs couldn’t eat meat. I knew this guy in the West Indies who was a big time SDA and he could down an entire chicken. He was also pretty awesome at chess.

    1. SDAs do not forbid meat consumption as part of the religion…. but most of them abstain cause the adventist health message (including no meat) is a large guiding force.

    1. But you can have steak, whiskey and bacon and be healthy. What you can’t have is a diet of fast food washed down by gallons of sugar water.

  15. My best friend’s family is Seventh Day Adventist, they kicked him out for being Gay and are punishing his younger sister for being in a relationship with a black guy..


    1. Gay is still on the edge for most SDAs… the Bible does speak somewhat about this. If they are shunning the black guy that has no basis at all from their religion.. they are just racist morons.

  16. Like many – or even most – religious movements that have lasted longer than the founder the SDA church has 2 guiding principles. First, there is the dogma of the church that cannot be contested – things like the second coming or the importance of seventh day worship. Second, there are the traditional teachings of the church – things like the health message. I think of it like the Bible + Church Fathers for Catholics or the Quran + Hadith for Muslims.  

    So while most ministers of the SDA church will not preach vegetarianism as necessary for salvation the concept is so deeply ingrained into the culture of the church that from the outside looking in it may seem that way. 

    And yes, the Adventist church does have issues with race. I am black and grew up in the SDA church. Many are surprised to find out that the church is, today, organizationally segregated. In my parents home town (a southern town with ~100K people)  there is a “white” SDA church and a “black” SDA church. While operating in the same geographical area the two churches belong to separate “conferences” (the next atomic unit above a single church). The conferences where established based on race and largely operate to this day base on race. The church is not theologically racist (as the early Mormons where) but the fact that the church has racial differences today that can apparently be only solved by continuing segregation is an indication that if there is not a theological prejudice in place a cultural one is.

    I do not belong to the church and was never baptized into it – despite (or maybe because of) my extremely close ties to it. I was to be a 4th generation Adventist as my Great Grandmother was the first into the church. It makes me sad that there are so many relationships lost because of my separation from the church but it is something that I had to do if I where to continue being both intellectually and emotionally honest with myself and those around me. 

    When I read stories like this it ruffles my feathers because stories like this are what the SDA church uses as marketing. Proof that God has shown that they are the “remnant church”. My father said that he came to the church because after his mothers church the SDA message was so different and so true (based on some cursory library work). Things would be very different if the SDA church where less sophisticated but studies like this give their more sophisticated message a veneer of validity that requires a bit more work to understand it’s basic “wrongness”. 

    I think that I will step down from my soapbox now but I will save it for later. Soapboxes can be handy sometimes. 

    1. Hellow Dezmond. It was interesting to read your comment. 

      Years ago I belonged to Witness Lee’s The Local Church. It was definitely an unusual experience, but I’m glad I moved on.

  17. While there is much to be said for living a healthy lifestyle, I tend to believe that a big chunk of the SDA’s additional lifespan just might be due to that vaunted health/medical establishment.

    There’s a lot to be said for seriously practicing preventive medicine.

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