Saturday, July 7, 2012

Healthy Communities Promote Longer Lives: One explanation for Life Expectancy Among Early Settlers.

It’s rare that I write an article that I can post on both Healing Whole and the Cavendish Historical Society blogs, but this is one that I think has broad appeal.

In preparing for a workshop I’m running on July 15 called, Lotions, Potions and Notions: 18th through mid 19th Century Folk Cures, I was impressed to find that of Cavendish’s founding couples, only one died in their mid 70’s and all the rest in the their 80’s and 90’s. John Coffeen died at 75 and his wife Susanna at 94. Salmon Dutton was 80 and his wife Sarah was 83. Rounding out the group was Leonard Proctor who was 93 and his wife was 84 at the time of their passing. Interestingly, there was no doctor to treat the family, so what was their secret?

Was it something they grew in their garden? Could it have been all the apple products that were part of their life? Was it their lifestyle? Genetics?

According to Linda Welch, the author of “Families of Cavendish, Vol 1”, Early Cavendish people, though, were farmers-pure and simple and self sufficient. They planted their own crops, raised their own livestock and lived independently from the food they produced from their own labor. “

So while a variety of aspects may have played a role in their longevity, I decided to look at how well they might have followed the nine principles of the “Blue Zones,” those parts of the world with the longest living people. Called the Power 9 , here’s how my town’s settlers would have stacked up:

1. Move Naturally: The world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron, run marathons or join gyms. Instead, they live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving without thinking about it.

The settlers’ life would have required them to be moving throughout their day.

2. Purpose Now: Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy. The Okinawans call it “ikigai” and the Nicoyans call it “plan de vida;” for both it translates to “why I wake up in the morning.”

From surviving letters and stories, the original settlers understood very clearly the role they played in their community. During the Revolutionary war, Capt. Coffeen described his wife Susanna as the prettiest woman in town. Although not that attractive, she was the only woman in town during that period. In recognition of her efforts during this time, she was given land in her own name. Dutton established what is now the village of Cavendish, while Proctor created what is still known as the village of Proctorsville. Coffeen was the county’s representative to form a Constitution for the new State of Vermont.

3. Down Shift: Even people in the Blue Zones experience stress. Stress leads to chronic inflammation, which is associated with every major age-related disease. What the world’s longest-lived people have that we don’t are routines to shed that stress. Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians take a nap and Sardinians do happy hour.

Long winters, Sunday worship, quilting bees etc. were built in times of rest for the people of this era.

4. Eat Wisely-80% Rule: America has been eating its way well beyond health. Our strategy focuses on taking things out — instead of putting more things in — our diet. “Hara hachi bu” – the Okianawan, 2500-year old Confucian mantra said before meals reminds them to stop eating when their stomach is 80 percent full.

Given that food had to be grown or killed, there were bound to be times that even 80% full would have felt like a luxury.

5. Plant Slant: Go ahead and eat meat if you want. But consider it a condiment and try the leanest, finest meat you can afford.

Gardens were key to these Northern New Englanders. Many times supper was beans with a bit of salt pork for flavoring.

6. Wine @ 5: Moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers. The trick is to drink 1-2 drinks per day (preferably Sardinian Cannonau wine), with friends and/or with food. And no, you can’t save up all weekend and have 14 drinks on Saturday.

I’m not sure about the drinking habits of the early settlers. However, I suspect they all made apple jack (hard cider) and drank it from time to time. Did they do it every day? Probably not. However, one of the first things that John Coffeen did was to establish a Tavern.

7. Belong: Research shows that attending faith-based services four times per month will add 4-14 years of life expectancy.

The first church was established in Cavendish in the late 1700’s and was shared by several different denominations. However, not all attended church and in the early years, there wasn’t a sufficient number of people to form a congregation. According to genealogist Linda Welch, “Religion, worship and piety was a part of daily life of early American society so it was not surprising Cavendish, Vermont established its first organized church at Cavendish Center prior to 1800.”

8. Loved Ones First: Successful centenarians in the Blue Zones put their families first. This means keeping your aging parents and grandparents near by or in your home. (It lowers disease and mortality rates of children in the home too.) Work on being in a positive, committed relationship (which can add up to 3 years of life expectancy) and invest in your children with time and love. (They’ll be more likely to care for you when the time comes.)

Family was key for these settlers. As Linda Welch notes in “Families of Cavendish, Vol 1, “It was essential in this back country that a man’s family be large to provide for the unending need of spare hands to complete the tasks necessary for daily living. It has been said that in those early days, a man’s worth was assessed by counting the numbers of boys he had to work and the girls he had to sew and cook, as well as counting the tools he had and the acreage he owned. … A family needed a strong paternal and maternal involvement for survival which tells us why so many widows and widowers remarried within months of losing their spouses.”

All three families had strong intergenerational relationships, with the children remaining in town, starting businesses etc. However, the westward expansions in the 1800’s did attract many of the early settlers children and grand children.

9. Right Tribe: The world’s longest lived people chose–or were born into–social circles that supported healthy behaviors, Okinawans created ”moais”–groups of five friends that committed to each other for life. Research from the Framingham Studies show that smoking, obesity, happiness, and even loneliness is contagious. Assessing who you hang out with, and then proactively surrounding yourself with the right friends, will do more to add years to your life than just about anything else.

Many of the behaviors that plague modern America weren’t issues for the settlers. Smoking would have been a luxury item and their daily life didn’t lend itself to people becoming obese. However, death from disease and accidents were quite common. In many cases, two or three or more children lost in a family over a 12 to 15 year period was the rule rather an exception.

Maybe the best example of how the settlers lived the 9 Principles of a Blue zone can be found in the Coffeen Cemetery, which is not far from the front door of the house, which was located on the Cavendish Reading Road, close to Brook Road.

Not long after Coffeen settled in Cavendish, he and his wife set out for Charlestown, NH for supplies and grinding their grist. Due to a snowstorm, the parents did not return for six weeks. During this time, one of the Coffeen children became ill and died. The other children kept the body in the house until the parents returned, at which time, due to heavy snow, the body was buried across the road from the house. Coffeen decided that this would be the family’s cemetery.

As you read the gravestones, you’ll find not only Coffeen family, but also close friends of theirs, as well as four Revolutionary soldiers. This small cemetery , tucked into the Green Mountains, tells the story of a large family, who had strong faith, loved their country and community and set out to create a better life for themselves, resulting not only in the shaping of a new town but also the creation of a new state.

While we can’t be sure that all nine principles of the Blue zones were met, I think they came pretty close. This then brings up the question, which I think is very relevent to our on going national discussion about healthcare and insurance-is a healthy community as important or more important than high end medical care? My money is on the healthy community.

The program Lotions, Potions and Notions: 18th through mid 19th Century Folk Cures will be held at the Cavendish Historical Society Museum on July 15, 2 pm. This is a free event. For more information

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