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Is There Another Shangri-La Only 26 Miles Across the Sea?

November 26, 1985|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

One thing must be made quite clear: No government report on life style, lifespan, life expectancy, life insurance or the life of Riley has to date recognized the premise and promise of this story.

Further, the exploring John who discovered this rocky isle was Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in search of fresh water, not Juan Ponce de Leon looking for the fountain of youth.

A Doctor's Dictum

Still, country doctor Bob Staff believes if you want to stay younger while living longer you'd better move to Catalina Island.

He says he has two dozen patients older than 90. Of the island's permanent population of 2,000, "a couple of hundred are in their 80s . . . a couple of hundred more are in their 70s." It is possible, Staff believes, that Catalenos live five years longer than mainland seniors.

There's Mickey in his 70s who still climbs to trim giant eucalyptus with a handsaw. Whenever there's a dance at the Casino there's Hank and he jitterbugs at 86. Hubert daily walks the steep slope of Beacon Street and he's 95. . . .

"In the 30 years I've been on the island, I've had 25 or 30 patients who came here expecting to die and they've lived for years," Staff said. "Some are still swimming and golfing and playing tennis and surviving." (A chorus of island residents sing the same tune, but first hear what the good doctor has to say.)

Dr. Bob (his preference) is precisely what any geriatrician would order--he's 68, put together like beef jerky, makes house calls on a bicycle, doesn't smoke, runs for fun and was swimming in Avalon harbor this month when even the abalone were crawling ashore for hot chocolate.

Red Meat Intake

Such a regimen--plus a red meat intake largely restricted to buffalo burgers--should keep any person healthy. Whether they live in Avalon or Alhambra. Staff acknowledges this. He also notes another undisputed factor of longevity anywhere. Fresh air.

"We've never had smog over here," he said. Unless you count that smoky morning in 1982 after the waterfront Busy Bee Cafe burned down. "Occasionally, the Santa Ana winds will blow a few streaks of haze over the island." On Catalina, that's known as collecting Los Angeles' empties.

"We often see this brown cloud coming out over the channel," he said. "You can see Baldy and the San Gabriel Mountains poking through it . . . and you imagine all the terminal pulmonary cripples beneath it."

For the pseudo-scientific heck of it, Staff likes to monitor the lung capacities of his patients. It's one way of further proving the inarguable.

"Take a healthy, 6-foot, male football player from Avalon High School and his lungs will have the full, five-liter capacity," Staff explained. Then our budding Refrigerator Perrys move to college and adult years and the hazy, smazy days of summer on the mainland. "They'll lose a liter in the next 10 years. By the time they're 40 they're down to three liters and by 60 they're gasping."

Staff emphasizes that his research is all rule-of-thumb applied to educated guesses with only scant adjustment for the variables.

On the other hand, he does not establish himself as an august, Nobel-seeking researcher and is quick to concede the rural coziness of his 30-year island practice; the home phone number that's listed, the parlor that doubles as an examining room with its cottage quilt and the Norman Rockwell prints and figurine caricatures of country doctors. Also a toilet seat used as a picture frame.

There are, however, some serious credentials back of Staff's softness. He studied public health at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the 1944 medical degree is from well-regarded Tufts University and his specialty was orthopedics.

Then his move to Catalina and a personal hobby within the medical profession--an informal study, through seminars and by health education homework, of what makes seniors glow and keep on ticking. "I don't think we'll ever find the fountain of youth . . . but as long as the human being has a finite life expectancy, we should be able to push it a little further."

But back to those basics of clean air and exercise. Also a low cholesterol, low sodium, low gin, no tobacco diet. They are standards of health nuttery in any community. They certainly don't qualify Catalina as a Shangri-La of the Pacific.

"But our life style does," Dr. Bob said. "Even if some of our healthful habits are of necessity. Meat, for example, is imported and that makes it more expensive. So it is much easier to become a fish eater, a proven health factor.

"Only 800 cars are allowed (by quota) on the island so we walk most places. Once you're off (oceanfront) Crescent Avenue you're walking uphill and that's a cardiovascular exercise.

Noise pollution in Avalon is limited largely to barking dirt bikes. The last traffic fatality on the island may well have been 600 years ago when a Gabrieleno Indian failed to yield to an oncoming wild pig.

Ergo, Staff added, there's little external stress on island residents.

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