Vicki and Clair Eckersell aren't hard-core triathletes or fanatical nutritionists. The West Los Angeles couple and their two children merely exercise moderately and eat balanced meals. But they said they weren't surprised to discover they're among the healthiest groups of Americans.
The Eckersells are devout Mormons who adhere to religious mandates prohibiting drinking alcohol and smoking. Those factors, according to a UCLA study scheduled to be published this summer, make Mormons some of the healthiest and longest-living people. Practicing Mormons were found to have one of the lowest death rates from cancer and cardiovascular diseases--about half that of the general population.
The study, conducted by UCLA epidemiologist James E. Enstrom, tracked the mortality rates and health practices of nearly 10,000 California high priests and their wives for 14 years. As a follow-up to research Enstrom published in 1989, the study confirms that the healthiest active Mormons have a life expectancy that is eight to 11 years longer than the general white population in the United States.
Mormon doctrine advises against the use of tobacco, alcohol, coffee, tea and drugs. In addition, devout Mormons practice premarital chastity and post-marital monogamy, which limits their risk of sexually transmitted diseases.
The study, Enstrom said, provides further evidence of how to lead a healthy lifestyle that will cut health risks.
Other religious groups who follow these practices rank with Mormons as some of the healthiest Americans, Enstrom said. "But Mormons form a really good model because there's a large number who are really adhering to this [doctrine]," he said.
The Eckersells said their family's adherence to Mormon doctrine is typical of others they know.
"This is our religion--it's our way of life," said Vicki Eckersell, 29. "Not only do we reap the benefits at end by living longer, but we live a healthier life throughout our lives. We don't have any addictions or health problems related to addictions."
According to the study, Mormon high priests have only 16% of the expected deaths from smoking-related cancers and 6% of the expected deaths from emphysema, asthma, ulcers, cirrhosis of the liver, homicide and suicide.
The death rate refers to the number of people expected to die in the general population during a given year. The study's author said these rates for Mormon deaths are significantly lower than rates for the general population.
High priests who follow the additional health practices of regular physical activity and proper sleep have an overall death rate that is only 38% of all U.S. white males.
Mormon leaders said active members of the church have known for years that their lifestyle promotes good health.
"I think the Mormon church gets its members to live the religion as a real part of their lives, and not just a Sunday observance kind of thing," said Michael J. Fairclough, a high priest and president of the Los Angeles region.
The study also noted that Mormons who emphasize a strong family life have a network of support that contributes to good health.
"Mormons have a sense of a larger community, of belonging to a larger church unit that is like an expanded family," Fairclough said. "Now there's more scientific evidence that people who live in stable families tend to be happier and have less stress. I think all those things contribute to emotional and mental health, which in turn probably helps physically."