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San Diego Mormons explain longevity

New study shows them living 8-11 years longer

  • That the children may live long,
  • And be beautiful and strong,
  • Tea and coffee and tobacco they despise Drink no liquor, and they eat
  • But a very little meat...
  • - from a 19th-century Mormon song

— "Be in the world," Mormons tell their children, "but not of the world," meaning they should do what God says, not what's in fashion. For 164 years, or almost as long as the church has existed, that has meant saying no to coffee, tea, beer, wine, and chewing tobacco. More recently, it has also meant abstaining from cigarettes, marijuana, wine coolers, espresso, Coca-Cola, and Pepsi. But in the age of Starbucks and curative red wine, Mormons have their vindication. A new study shows they'll be in the world longer than most white Americans - by 8 to 11 years.

The study, which was conducted by UCLA epidemiologist James E. Enstrom, tracked nearly 10,000 California high priests (a term for the presiding level in the Mormon priesthood) and their wives for 14 years. "The Mormons are about as low as you can go in terms of death rates," Enstrom said by telephone.

The men in the study have only 16 percent of the expected deaths from smoking-related cancers and 6 percent of the expected deaths from homicide, suicide, emphysema, asthma, ulcers, and cirrhosis of the liver. Their life expectancy is 11 years longer than that of the average white male. Because women tend to be healthier than men in the general population, Enstrom said, the difference in female life expectancy is slightly lower - Mormon women may outlive their counterparts by eight years.

"By far, tobacco - primarily cigarette smoking - is the most important factor," Enstrom said. "Alcohol probably has some influence on the alcohol-related cancers, but it doesn't have a major influence on total mortality. And caffeine probably doesn't play a role to any extent." But Enstrom cautions that it's impossible to isolate each substance "because there's no variation in those practices."

The Mormon health code dates to February 27, 1833, when the church's founder, Joseph Smith, said he'd received a revelation called the Word of Wisdom, a warning against "evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days." Mormons were cautioned that "strong drink" was for washing, not imbibing; that "pure wine of the grape" was to be made at home for the sacrament, that hot drinks were not for the belly, and that tobacco isn't "good for man." Herbs and fruit, on the other hand, should be used with prudence, and the flesh of beast and fowl was to be used only in times of winter, cold, or famine. Members who followed this advice would "run and not be weary, walk and not faint."

For nearly 100 years, Smith's words remained a warning, not a commandment. "The Word of Wisdom was given to Joseph Smith," explained Carmen Davis, matron of the San Diego temple, "but it was never really implemented in the church until the early 1930s or '40s. It wasn't pushed." The Mormon Battalion brought coffee, she said, when they marched from Iowa to California in preparation for the war against Mexico.

"It wasn't something that could be changed all at once," Davis said. "You had people joining the church from everywhere, and the church was little, and you had thousands joining and coming [from Europe] and so we were really getting established." Carmen Davis is a fifth-generation Mormon, so for her, church history is family history. On a genealogy chart that shows 26 ancestors, 23 are Mormons. Twelve of them lived into their 80s or 90s, but not always because they abstained from alcohol and cigarettes.

"The interesting thing about Kenner Casteel," she said, pointing to her grandfather's name on the chart, "is he didn't live the Word of Wisdom at all as an older man, but he still was extremely healthy." Davis believes her grandfather's drinking caused his divorce, but "he was a very good man. And I never looked down on him."

Still, Davis doesn't drink, and she never has. She says she's a shrimp compared to her grandmother Adlee, but Davis gives the impression of speed, not diminution. Maybe Adlee could outrun her sons until she was crippled by a car at 75, but at 59, Davis looks as if she could run and not be weary in the high heels she wears on her day off. She follows the church's health code not because she's trying to live longer but because it feels normal to her.

"I had a friend," she said, "that smoked. She was a very heavy smoker. She wouldn't smoke at my house...but she had this stale smell." Davis can't imagine how romance overcomes such a smell, and "it was just never attractive to me."

Davis's husband, Clint, like the men in the Enstrom study, is a high priest. They both graduated from BYU, and they raised six children in San Diego before her husband was called to be a mission president in New Jersey and then president of the San Diego Temple (both positions are full-time and unpaid). Although raising a Mormon family in San Diego was a challenge, Davis said, "I cannot remember a child ever wanting to break the Word of Wisdom."

Her son Mark Davis, a 31-year-old financial planner and local stake president, confirms this. "I've never tasted the stuff, never tried the stuff, never even really been tempted to try the stuff," he said. "I can even remember back in high school, you'd go to a party or whatever, and people were smoking or doing things, and if anyone came and offered it to me, I don't know why, but I never felt the pressure. My friends usually jumped up, like, 'Get away from him, man! He's a Mormon!'"

San Diego County is home to some 52,000 Mormons who meet in 91 congregations called wards and 14 groups of wards called stakes. The presidents and bishops who lead these congregations do so without pay for an average of three to five years, and one leadership call is usually followed by one even higher up the administrative ladder. You aren't called to be a stake president if you dabble in cappuccino or dessert wines, and you're almost never called to be one at age 31. So Mark Davis may speak only for himself when he says there's no pressure to drink with clients.

Or it may simply be the times. Mark speculates that it's easier to abstain in the health- conscious '90s than in the '60s, which he describes as "the whole peace, love, have-sex-with-everybody, drink-till-you-vomit, do-every-type-of-psychedelic-drug" time. But coffee might be another matter. "Maybe," he said, "kids feel pressure to go to Starbucks and have a triple-latte-cream-de-whatever."

Maybe some do, but Becky Sharp doesn't. Sharp is a senior at Helix High School, where she said there are perhaps ten Mormons her age. Everybody at her high school drinks, she said, except her and her friends, some of whom are Mormon.

"I don't go to parties like that," she said, meaning parties where alcohol is served. "If I went, I don't think I'd be tempted at all because I just think it's all gross." And the siren song of a triple-latte?

"I know some Mormons drink coffee," she said, "and they don't think much of it," but Sharp herself doesn't like the taste of it and wouldn't drink it if she did.

Becky Sharp and Mark Davis grew up in devout Mormon families where the rules were followed at home, but Curtis Jensen, a UCSD sophomore, did not. His parents were members, he said, "but they were very inactive. My dad's active now, but my mom, she still drinks."

Jensen is about to leave a full-ride scholarship in computer engineering to serve a mission in Adelaide, Australia. His decision to keep the Word of Wisdom was "definitely affected" by his parents' drinking. "I had a first-hand view," he said, "of what it did."

Most of Jensen's friends aren't Mormons, and when he goes to college parties, he tries to turn down alcohol without condescension. He tells people he doesn't drink, and if they ask why, he says it's against his religion. "If I was condescending to other people," he said, "it would be kind of like putting down my mom too."

Dollie Hawkins has been a believer and an abstainer for 83 years. She and her husband lived on a farm in Mission Valley until 1958, and she attributes her current health and the health of her children to the Word of Wisdom and farm life: she made her own butter, grew her own corn and tomatoes, and raised chickens and rabbits. "My family," she said, "is my happiness." She has 6 children, 30 grandchildren, and 58 great-grandchildren, and when she isn't working in the temple, she does genealogy on a computer, which she recently learned to use.

Verda Mawson, another temple worker, just turned 90, and she says her longevity is a mystery. She doesn't drink and she doesn't smoke, but her grandfather, the first white male to be born in the Salt Lake Valley, smoked cigars and lived to be 88.

"I have a good attitude about life," she said. "I don't worry about things - I've trained myself not to worry.... I think you have to control your life a little bit." On her 90th birthday, Mawson did exactly what she planned to do: she danced the jitterbug while a band played Glenn Miller's "In the Mood."

"At a ward picnic a couple of years ago," she said, "somebody said, 'I hear you can sit down and cross your legs and get up and down without help.' " So Mawson sat down and crossed her legs. Then she stood up again without help. The man said, "Well, can you touch your toe to your nose?" and Mawson said she'd never tried that.

"I raised up my right toe," Mawson said, "and touched my nose with it."

Mawson is, as she herself admits, one of the lucky and the blessed, and you must decline more than cigarettes to be a faithful Mormon. Sunday meetings last for three hours, missions are mandatory, and tithing is 10 percent. Mormons manage to be in the world but not of it partly because they create a smaller, older world, where bishops and stake presidents urge women to stay home with the children, birth control is discouraged, and everything happens for a reason.

But the smaller world of faith James Enstrom has found in 19 years of research is also a place with observable health benefits. "I think the religiosity factor...accounts for some portion of [longevity] as well," he said, noting that "it seems to apply to people of any faith."

Perhaps it's also worth noting, then, that when Verda Mawson danced the jitterbug on her 90th birthday, she did so at a party thrown by the La Mesa First Ward. Mawson is a widow with only one child, but 135 people came.

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