October 7, 2015

​The Black “Blue Zone”

Sabbath, July 25, 2015, was a special day for Julia Bethea. It was her 108th birthday! Still living in her three-bedroom house and cooking most of her own meals, Julia got up early. Although she gave up cutting her lawn on her riding mower and driving her car about three years ago, Julia is still active.

At First Church Sister Bethea was presented with a congratulatory letter from Huntsville mayor Tommy Battle (she also got one from the governor) and was serenaded by the entire congregation. There are 13 nonagenarians at First church.

On the other side of Huntsville a special ceremony has been planned for the 21 nonagenarians at the Oakwood University church. The entire service—children’s story, prayers, lifting of the offering, choir—is led by seniors. Even the sermon is preached by an 85-year-old guest speaker, Calvin B. Rock.

Jesse M. Godley Bradley, coordinator of the Oakwood University church program, explains that seven of the 21 members over 90 are men. Bradley explained that for the 12 years she has been honoring this elite group, the number has remained fairly constant. Four died during the current year, but four new nonagenarians have taken their places, and Rosa Moore celebrated her one hundredth birthday. Among the new members was Charles E. Bradford, former president of the North American Division.

The oldest man on the list, 99-year-old Ernest E. Rogers, made news in 2009 when, at 93, he married Annell M. Wright, 91, a retired schoolteacher. Rogers still walks every day. Close behind Rogers is another minister, George Earle, former president of the Northeastern Conference, now 97.

Scattered in the other Black Adventist churches in Huntsville are another dozen nonagenarians, for an amazing total of about 50 Black men and women over the age of 90!

Lessons for Living Longer

Dan Buettner wrote a popular book titled The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. Featured as one of the five longevity zones and the only one from North America was Loma Linda, California.

The people inhabiting Blue Zones share common lifestyle characteristics that contribute to their longevity: no smoking, a plant-based diet, constant moderate physical activity, strong family and social ties, and engagement. With 21 nonagenarians at the Oakwood University church, 14 at First Church, and a dozen or more scattered around the other nearby Black Adventist churches, it would seem that Oakwood University and the Huntsville area would qualify as a Blue Zone as well.

Actually, it is even more unusual for these longevity records in such a great number to show up when one considers the health disparities of the American Black population and the longevity gap between the Black and White populations.

“Across America, African Americans experience higher rates of disease, disability, and death than Whites,” says David R. Williams at Harvard University. “For example,” Williams says, “heart disease is the number-one killer in the U.S. among Americans aged 25 to 64. Black men have a death rate from heart disease that is twice as high, and Black women three times as high, as White men and women, respectively. It is not just heart disease, but across multiple health outcomes Blacks have earlier onset of illness, more severe disease, and poorer quality of care compared to Whites.

Racial differences in economic status contribute to some of these differences. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Black households earn 59 cents for every dollar of income that Whites receive, and even more striking, for every dollar of wealth that Whites have, Blacks have only six cents. Nonetheless, even when Backs and Whites are compared at the same level of education and income, the racial gap in health is reduced, but it still persists.”1

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An Oakwood Milestone

In 1896, with the encouragement of Ellen G. White, three men purchased a small Huntsville, Alabama, farm of 380 acres and 65 oak trees. The fledgling private facility had four buildings, nine slave cabins, a principal, three teachers, and 16 students. One hundred twenty years later the industrial school has grown to be a university with more than 2,000 students.

When Oakwood was born, the town of Huntsville boasted a population of 13,000 and a world-class water spring. Today’s population is more than 180,000, with 31 percent, or 56,000, being African American. The fourth-largest city in Alabama, Huntsville is growing rapidly and will soon add tens of thousands more, as it has nearly every decade since rockets replaced cotton as the leading industry. Alabama’s largest city, Birmingham, is losing population rapidly, and its third-largest city, Mobile, is decreasing at a slower pace.

The Vegetarian and Exercise Advantage

In the mid-1980s Dr. Chris Melby hypothesized that Black Adventist vegetarians who exercise regularly have the secret of better health for minority groups in America. According to Melby, a plant-based diet could enhance prevention and treatment of hypertension and cardiovascular diseases in Black adults despite their greater susceptibility to hypertension. Melby studied a group of Black Adventist vegetarians and compared them to a group of Black Adventist nonvegetarians.2

Melby’s study showed that Black Adventist vegetarians exhibited significantly lower systolic blood pressure than Black Adventist nonvegetarians. Exercising vegetarians had a prevalence of hypertension three times lower than sedentary nonvegetarians.

Loma Linda University began Adventist Health Study-1 to determine which particular facet of Adventist lifestyle contributed to its longevity. It examined nearly 34,000 California Adventists over age 25 from 1974 to 1988. That study showed that in California a 30-year-old Adventist, male lives 7.3 years longer than the average 30-year-old White California male, and a 30-year-old Adventist female lives 4 years longer than the average 30-year-old California White female. If you compared vegetarian Adventists the results jumped to 9.5 years longer for men and 6.1 years longer for women. Black Adventists were not specifically identified in this study.

In 2002 Loma Linda University initiated Adventist Health Study-2 (AHS-2), which followed 96,000 U.S. and Canadian Adventists ages 30 and older and included more than 26,000 Black Adventist participants.54 3 8

Patti Herring, coinvestigator of the study, says, “This large number of Black/African Americans will help answer why we have a disproportionate amount of cancers and heart disease, and why Blacks have different risks of certain diseases.” Dr. Herring points out some of the facts they have learned so far:

Compared to other Adventists, Black Adventists have more cases of type 2 diabetes, stroke, and high blood pressure, but fewer cases of emphysema, myocardial infarction, heart attacks, fibromyalgia, and high cholesterol.

Cases of hypertension and diabetes were lower for Black Adventists than comparable national rates for both Blacks and non-Blacks, a noteworthy finding. This may be explained by the fact that Black Adventists reported better health habits than Black non-Adventists.

Black females had significantly less cancer than non-Black females.

Overall, Black Adventist study participants reported better physical and mental quality of life than the U.S. norm.3

Study Challenges

What’s happening in Huntsville “suggests that the same phenomenon that we see among White California Adventists is alive and well among Black members in the Huntsville region. That’s very exciting and wonderful to contemplate,” says Gary Fraser, lead investigator of the study.

Fraser laments that “although the AHS-2 as a whole is going well, I am very troubled about the longer-term existence of the Black part of our cohort. We can continue to collect cancer and total mortality statistics ‘passively,’ without active participation from study members. But as we look forward to running clinics, studies on gene expression, cognitive function (early dementia), and other end points, we will need continued participation of study subjects, by answering short questionnaires, occasional phone conversations, some invitations to clinics, etc. At present, for instance (despite multiple remails), we get about a 35 percent response from Black members to our biennial short questionnaire (four pages), and about 70 to 75 percent in White subjects.”

Several contributing factors might explain the benefits of the Adventist lifestyle for Black Adventists. First, African Americans in general have high incident rates of obesity, with Black women having the highest rates of obesity in America (about 80 percent). Vegetarians are usually much thinner than their counterpart meat eaters. Black Adventists emphasize eating plenty of grains, fruits, and vegetables, a moderate amount of nuts, legumes, and low-fat dairy, and sugar and salt very sparingly.

Second, alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine are not recommended at all among Adventist members. Oakwood University, and all the surrounding Adventist churches, are alcohol- and tobacco-free zones.

Third, Adventist men practice a pacifist lifestyle and few own weapons. Death by unintentional injuries and homicides is responsible for many deaths among African Americans, and many of these are caused by gun violence, often incited by alcohol use. Last, Black Adventists reserve Saturday for a day of rest and worship, spent in communion with God and family.

Healthy Campus 2020

Just recently Oakwood University initiated a program called Healthy Campus 2020 (HC2020), which endeavors to empower students to make healthful choices (see Oakwood Seeks to Be Healthiest U.S. Campus on page 9). Each month one of the principles of their new acronym STAND OUT! will be emphasized—Sunshine, Temperance, Adequate rest, Nutrition, Drink water, Outdoors, Use physical activity, and Trust in God!

“The goal of HC2020 is to enable students to experience the abundant life that is promised in John 10:10 and to make Oakwood University the healthiest campus in America,” says Leslie Pollard, president of Oakwood University. “By initiating the Healthy Campus 2020 program, Oakwood University is implementing an organized and focused plan to purposefully enrich the health status of the Oakwood student body, faculty, staff, and the surrounding community. Upon entering Oakwood University, students will be given a health transcript. We will draw blood and establish a baseline, and show them the science behind each principle. We will do post-testing, and students will be able to see what healthy living can really do for them!”

There is evidence that the younger a person is when they adopt a healthful lifestyle, the greater the impact on their life. If Oakwood University is not considered the Black “Blue Zone” now, it surely will be soon, and is on track to become the healthiest campus in America!

  1. Charts from BlackDemographics.com, “African American Life Expectancy.”
  2. C. Melby et al., “Relation Between Vegetarian/Nonvegetarian Diets and Blood Pressure in Black and White Adults,” American Journal of Public Health 79 (1989): 1283-1288.
  3. Please notify the AHS-2 office of any change of address, phone number, and e-mail. Call (800) 247-1699 or e-mail [email protected].

DeWitt S. Williams, Ed.D., M.P.H., C.H.E.S., is a retired director of health ministries for the North American Division.