China’s Longevity Village

Our experiences and discoveries shared in our upcoming book in 2015

“Where are we?” Jane asked.

“I don’t know but I think we are getting closer to the Village.”

I tried to sound calm as I responded to my wife, but deep down I was scared. This was unusual for me. As a cardiologist, I was used to taking care of patients in life or death conditions.

The bus taking us toward the Village careened in and out of the lane with torrential rains blurring the way ahead. My oldest child developed a fever and me, the doctor, had failed to bring any medical supplies. I also kicked myself for forgetting to change money before we headed into a place where foreigners just don’t go and there are no places to exchange currency.

Are there even any hospitals or antibiotics in this part of China? I wondered. Probably not I figured. No one even speaks English in this rural corner of China. We are hours from any major city winding through a mountainous area of Southwest China near the Vietnam border.

The bus’s headlights pierced the darkness, but I was not quite sure where we were or where we needed to go.

“What have I gotten my family into?” I asked myself. “Am I on some delusional search for the fountain of youth?”

I was searching for answers…anything to help me get my health back.

“This might be a bust,” I admitted to Jane apologetically. “Maybe we should just take the first bus out in the morning and hope we can get on an early flight back.”

Jane was silent. I knew she was weighing all of the factors. Finally, she said, “No, John. We’ve come this far. Let’s stay the course. We’ll figure it out.”


My Story

I had always considered myself healthy. That is, if you consider a free donut, a bagel, and a Diet Coke from my hospital’s doctor dining lounge to be a healthy daily breakfast for a cardiologist. Lunch wasn’t much better with a slice of pizza or two and another Diet Coke.

Did I forget to mention that I stashed away a second donut to eat for my lunch dessert? Despite that unhealthy habit, there was a lesson to be learned. The donuts were usually gone by 10 am, so I learned to be prepared for any sugar emergency.

I’d come home at the end of the day telling my wife, Jane, that I needed some vegetables. Yet, I was pretty picky about what vegetables I would eat. Mostly they were the ones you can get kids to eat–carrots, and maybe some steamed broccoli.

Is it any wonder then that by 44 I found myself, like most Americans, overweight, hypertensive, and with high cholesterol? Not only this, but I was constantly tired, had persistent chest pains from acid reflux, and suffered from an autoimmune disease that inflamed my joints and the nerves along my spine. I swallowed five medications daily to combat the ravages on my 44-year-old body that felt 60 years old.

I was aging way too fast, but I was in good company. After all, aren’t we Americans, in general, aging too fast?


We Are Aging Too Fast

The average life expectancy in the U.S. is now 78 years. Two in every three Americans is now overweight or obese. According to the World Health Organization, the average American can expect to be disabled at age 68. We’re spending our “golden years” downing handfuls of medications and going to far too many doctor’s appointments. Everyday in my practice I see people who tell me that growing old is a form of torture that I should avoid at all cost. Most of us have already surrendered to what we have come to expect as the “normal” aging process. Like most Americans, I was definitely heading down that same path.

Imagine now, if you will, a place where people age very slowly and do not struggle with diets, being overweight, heart disease or cancer; a place where people even in their 90s or even 100s are often still growing, harvesting, and cooking their own naturally organic food and hold an optimistic outlook on life and do not fear aging.

This defied everything I had learned at Johns Hopkins Medical School or in my residency and fellowship training at Stanford University. We were taught that chronic medical conditions were just part of the aging process and that we have medications and surgeries to treat these conditions.

This was my paradigm as well.


My Turning Point

“Growing old is no fun, Dr. Day.“ My patient Bill shifted in his hospital bed and continued. “There is nothing good about getting old. I’m tired. I have no energy. I hurt all over. I can’t play with my grandkids the way I want. Don’t grow old!“

I nodded in agreement. I felt compassion for Bill and despair about my own situation. I was a good 20 years younger than him and I was already experiencing every symptom he described.

“Do you have any more questions before we start the surgery?”

I knew that if Bill had made a few simple lifestyle choices differently, he probably would never have needed this surgery. And what was I doing? As the doctor who had all of the medical data on how to live healthy, why had I not seemed to make the connection that this applied to me as well?

As I walked toward the operating room with pain in my knee, neck, and back, I saw the vision of my older self. I thought, “This is my path. I’m already there. I’ve been racing, trying to take shortcuts and my lifestyle choices have created the reality where I can’t even do the things I want to with my kids, let alone my grandchildren. What’s it going to be like in my 60s? Am I going to be in one of those jazzy scooters?”

During my standard five-minute surgical hand scrub prior to the surgery, I thought back on our recent Disneyland family vacation.

Disneyland was my favorite vacation as I child and I could not wait to share this experience with my own children now that they were old enough to enjoy it.

As soon as we got to Disneyland we headed straight toward my childhood favorite rides, Space Mountain and Pirates of the Caribbean.

On Space Mountain, my kids screamed with pure joy on every twist and turn, while I tried without success to brace my neck to prevent more pain. The ride that was always too short now felt like it couldn’t end soon enough.

I thought that Pirates of the Caribbean would be a nice break from the pain. We got onto the boat and began to glide on the water under a night sky amongst the pirate mannequins and canon fire.

As I sat on the narrow wooden bench, my lower back began to scream at me. I shifted and then shifted again. I couldn’t find a position in which I did not feel pain. My knees continued to get worse from the tight angle.

Trying to protect my knee, neck and back, I gingerly made my way from ride to ride thinking, “I can’t even enjoy my favorite childhood experiences with my own kids.”

As my kids encouraged me to do more, I just could not do it. I was too tired and hurt all over. Disneyland was supposed to be the happiest place on earth and all I could do was count the hours until we could leave the park….

My thoughts were suddenly interrupted by my nurse who called out, “Dr. Day the patient is draped and ready for the surgery.”

As she assisted me with my surgical gown and gloves, she asked, “How was your trip?”

“Horrible.” I replied. Up until now, I was trying to hold it all together to the outside world. I was fine. No problems here. Then I let the truth of it all spill out.

“Wow, I had no idea. I’m so sorry. That must be so hard.”

While my nurse didn’t really say anything helpful other than empathizing with me, that conversation was a turning point. Hitting a wall at Disneyland and my public admission that everything wasn’t actually fine propelled me into action.

I began searching desperately for answers. Could it all be just my genes?

I thought because others in my family had certain conditions, that if I got them too, there was nothing I could do about it. It just ran in the family. Nothing could be farther from the truth. We are not victims. Studies show that at least 75% of our health and happiness is determined by lifestyle choices. I also knew that good or bad genes can be turned on or off based on how we choose to live our lives.

This was just a nice excuse for me to not have to make any lifestyle changes.   I didn’t want to give up my donut, bagel, pizza and Diet Coke. Although if I was honest with myself, I had to have known somewhere deep down that they were at least part of the problem.

I eventually came to the conclusion that if I could just get some of the weight off, at least my knee and back might feel better and my blood pressure and cholesterol would go down. I tried losing weight but couldn’t. I was just too hungry all of the time. Nothing was working.

I tried following a colleague’s suggestion to go gluten free. This lasted for about three days until the donuts, bagels, and pizza completely overwhelmed my willpower.


Our Discovery of the Village

The answer finally came late one night in the fall of 2011 during a Skype call in Chinese to a colleague in China. I loved these calls. They always brought back memories of my church humanitarian service living among the Chinese people and the countless trips I have made to China professionally lecturing and teaching at the cardiac conferences. These calls were just one more opportunity to practice my Chinese that I had been faithfully studying most every day for the last 26 years. They always made me happy.

As I shared my health struggles with my colleague in China, she told me of a medical documentary she had just seen about the Longevity Village (Bapan Village). This village sits amid the rugged and remote mountains of Southwest China near the Vietnam border. The people here often live to 100 years old and are free from the medical conditions that happen with aging in America.

“Can this really be true?” I asked.

That was all it took. A fire was lit. After we ended our Skype session, I immediately started researching this Village. I quickly devoured the medical studies, all in Chinese, to see if the scientific data supported the revelations about such a place.

At 44 years old, I was scared to death of growing old, yet here was a group of people growing old and not getting sick. How could this be? What was their secret?

As I sat pondering the possibilities, feeling hope for the first time in a long time, Jane came down to my office to ask if we could go to bed. Usually it’s me who is asking Jane, the night owl, to get to bed. I told her what I had discovered. Excited at our findings, we knew we were on to something. We decided that night that we had to see this place. Somehow, and as soon as we possibly could, we would get there.

We would stay with these people and learn their secrets. We would learn their way of life. Speaking fluent Chinese, I knew I could easily navigate my family there.

In July of 2012, we made good on that promise, taking the first of what would become two journeys in two years to China’s Longevity Village.

The fact that the chronic diseases we have just accepted as part of the aging process in the U.S. don’t exist in rural China, was first widely published by Dr. T. Colin Campbell in his scientific articles and later by one of the best-selling nutrition books, The China Study.

Even former president Bill Clinton has credited the principles he learned in The China Study of rural Chinese people as one of the factors in his health turn around.


Lessons Learned from China’s Longevity Village

During our visits to China’s Longevity Village, Jane and I, along with our research team, uncovered the answers that had eluded me in all of my misguided searching back home in America. The locals took us in as one of their own and made sure we had everything we needed to make the journey a success.

I discovered that these people live according to basic principles that enable them to live well and escape the chronic conditions that we have come to accept as part of the normal aging process here in America.

I began to apply what I learned from these inspiring people. Despite my life as a busy cardiologist, I was able to make significant lifestyle changes and I quickly felt better and younger than I had felt in many years.

Although the lifestyle changes were dramatic for me, the changes were easy to make because the results came fast. The weight just seemed to drop off, without me ever feeling hungry, and one-by-one I was able to reverse all of my medical conditions and get off all of my daily medications.

The principles we learned in the Village can easily be applied to modern life in the U.S. I know because hundreds of my patients and their families have adopted these principles and have dropped the weight, regained their energy, reversed their heart disease and live medication free.

My patients and colleagues had tried unsuccessfully for years to lose weight and live healthier. By following the simple principles learned in the Longevity Village, they found a solution to transform their lives that had previously eluded them.

Despite having a family history of being overweight, diabetic, or heart diseased, my patients and colleagues were able to show that these genes could be turned off and the conditions reversed. They have now gained a new life and feel 10 to 20 years younger.

Whether you’re reading this out of concern for your own health or that of a loved one, I believe that I have a lot to offer you. Similarly, if you’re currently enjoying good health, you understand the tremendous value in doing the things that will allow you to continue feeling well and maintain your functionality.

I can’t tell you how incredibly happy I am that I was able to make these changes in my own life. The freedoms I now experience—freedom from pain, freedom from extra weight, freedom from fatigue and insomnia, freedom to play with my kids–cannot compare to the “pleasures” of my habitual donuts, bagels, and Diet Cokes. I’m even more pleased to share my learnings with you. I invite you to come along on the journey that I, my family, my patients, colleagues, and many others are undertaking to empower ourselves to reclaim our health, our lives and our happiness.