John Scharffenberg will turn 93 in December, but you’d never know it. He stands straight and tall, a whirlwind of activity with a spring in his step. His mind sharp as a tack, he exercises daily, drives himself to appointments, and has an engaging little chuckle when he makes or hears a joke. Upon meeting him for the first time, many mistakenly believe he and his 67-year-old son, Robert, are brothers.
A physician in preventative medicine, his life is one filled with nutrition and health education. Born Dec. 15, 1923 in Shanghai to missionary parents William and Katharyn, Scharffenberg discovered two things: doctors in China seemed to have more influence over the people than ministers. And secondly, a renowned, noted surgeon removing enlarged thyroids (goiters) from hundreds of Chinese, made Scharffenberg think, at age 12, “That’s pretty silly ... why doesn’t he just give these people Iodine as a preventative.”
By age 16, he and his family moved to the states, where he studied pre-med and medicine. He graduated from Loma Linda University in 1948, before attending Harvard to study nutrition, graduating with a masters in Public Health in 1956.
In between, Loma Linda and Harvard, he and his wife, Carmen, traveled to China as Seventh Day Adventist missionaries. Mao Tse-tung was in power and communism was spreading, so the church sent them to Korea instead. Once the Korean War hit a year later, they returned to the states, and Scharffenberg began teaching at Loma Linda University’s medical school. He later became a professor of nutrition at the university’s School of Public Health.
With good nutrition etched in his focus, Scharffenberg created seven new courses in nutrition, like weight control and heartbeat (where blood is drawn, blood pressure is taken, and a questionnaire is completed - all to show the probability of having a heart attack).
He was the first person to introduce a cancer prevention program to the public, a program initially denounced by other doctors who gave him flack for saying there were ways to prevent cancer, like diet. He said that criticism continued for a few months until one of the larger cancer centers in the country began a similar program.
Because he was working such long and hard hours, Carmen began referring to Loma Linda as the school of death, rather than health, and so Scharffenberg resigned after six years. The year was 1975 and the destination was North Fork.
Living in the Mountain Area
“We wanted to live in the best place in the world, and the mountains were inexpensive. My friend, Madera County Board of Supervisors Lonnie Cornwell, lived up here, and he sold me 26 acres at the edge of Cascadel backing into the Sierra National Forest for $28,000.”
Ideal place to live, maybe, but life wasn’t as easy as they thought it would be.
“We almost starved to death when we got to North Fork because I couldn’t find any work. You don’t make much money in health education, and you certainly don’t get the fame. Remember, I wasn’t in the usual practice of doctoring, but was a health educator,” Scharffenberg said.
It wasn’t long before Scharffenberg got a job in Bakersfield four days a week at San Joaquin Community Hospital, where he started a health education department. Because he wasn’t happy with the way the hospital was being run, he became a board member, and then talked the other members into selling the hospital and using the money for prevention programs. The hospital was sold for $30 million, with the funds going towards the creation of a foundation - Pacific Health Educational Center - which continues today to offer health education by providing materials, workshops, seminars, and lectures.
Another highlight of a remarkable career was his stint working with a tuberculosis unit. “As a health officer in the San Bernardino Health Department, I became an expert in tuberculosis control. I not only treated the disease, but worked on prevention, which was so successful that the TB unit closed because there were no more patients.”
Walking his talk
“I practice what I preach, which is why I’m this old,” he laughs. “And I have to admit that exercise is more important than nutrition.”
For the last four years, he’s traveled to Eastern Europe for four or five months at a time. This last trip, he was mainly in Czechoslovakia for 138 days, with 173 speaking engagements. Around his North Fork property, he cut wood to keep warm, and one year planted 3,000 strawberry plants in his garden, which he calls the best way to make friends because “who doesn’t love strawberries?”
When it comes to nutrition, the good doctor (a vegetarian) eats meals made up of unprocessed foods twice a day, morning and lunch, with no snacking in between, and no evening meal, which he believes is the best method of weight control.
“There should be five to six hours from the end of one meal to the beginning of the next. Meals should be digested before going to bed, but most people go to bed with a full stomach. It’s so hard on your stomach to make it work so many hours. If you do eat a evening meal, it should be light and a few hours before bedtime.”
Scharffenberg is unshakable in his belief that the biggest health problem facing America today is the bulging waistline, which brings with it all kinds of health risks. Because the waist size indicates how much fat surrounds the organs, and that fat causes hypertension, diabetes and breast cancer, he offers a few sound principles: stop snacking (no eating between meals); have a goal of losing 5% of your body weight in the next three months; and exercise to drop waist sizes.
The same risks for heart disease apply to cancer. The seven things to avoid include tobacco, alcohol, being overweight, inactivity, processed meat and sugar (eat more fruits and vegetables), high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol.
Living his life following these principles has kept Scharffenberg younger than his years, mentally alert, and much stronger physically than one might expect.
Looks are deceptive
Scharffenberg can’t help but laugh throughout his telling of an incident when he was in Washington, D.C. for a medical meeting. He was 62 at the time.
“I decided to stay at a youth hostel in a bad part of town because it was cheaper than staying at the hotel, $20 rather than $97 a night. This young, short African American with a thick neck like a wrestler tripped me on the sidewalk, grabbed me by the coat, and pushed me backwards. Once I fell, he grabbed both my feet and dragged me into a nearby alley, and tried to bang my head against the wall to knock me out.
“He thought I was too old to fight back, but I was able to get on top of him. I guess I was the better wrestler. Then he shouted out to his two friends, and I thought three against one, now that’s not fair. One grabbed my airplane ticket out of my coat pocket and I grabbed it back, telling him ‘you won’t be needing this.’”
In the end, Scharffenberg said he was able to escape unharmed, a little battered, with broken eyeglasses, and his overcoat stolen. He spent that night with detectives going from bar to bar to try to spot the three men, however, the hunt proved unsuccessful.
Scharffenberg’s older brothers ate right, but didn’t exercise. One died at 82, the other at 85 (he was unable to function mentally or drive a car for 10 years before his death). Carmen died five years ago. His daughter, Eloyce Mundall, is a nurse in Washington state, and his son, Robert, is a family practitioner at Corcoran Prison.
“I’m very happy,” Robert said laughing with the same distinctive chuckle as his father. “Most men my age don’t even have a dad. Mine walks, talks, no shuffle, no cane ... plus he’s a good dad.”
Robert added that he’s following in his father’s footsteps, not only because he’s in the medical profession, but because he has a similar diet and is a runner. In his last three 5k races, he came in third in his age division.
At age 85, Scharffenberg admitted his blood pressure went up a bit, so he’s currently taking the lowest dose (2.5 mg) of Lisinopril. The only other pill he takes is Vitamin D.
After four decades in the Mountain Area, he just returned to Southern California, where he plans on offering health education for the public in community programs, similar to the recent Health Faire held at the Oakhurst Community Center. His lectures will include topics like heart disease, cancer, weight control, osteoporosis, and preserving brain function. It’s exciting for Scharffenberg to see some of those he has educated turn around and become health educators themselves.
As for approaching his 93rd year, he said, “I think I’m slowing down a little, but I will continue to do what I love ... educating the public on nutrition. My rule of thumb hasn’t changed much over the years. I eat at proper times. No snacking. I eat a variety of natural unprocessed foods in quantities for my ideal weight, and I exercise. This is what I do. And this is what I will continue to live by.”
Inventor Thomas Edison (1847-1931) once said, “The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will interest her or his patients in the care of the human frame, in a proper diet, and in the cause and prevention of disease.”
That sentiment defines Scharffenberg to a tee.